The New Orleans Saints will square off against the Carolina Panthers without their top two wide receivers Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Thomas suffered a hamstring injury during Wednesday practice and has been ruled out for his fifth game in a row. He missed the previous for with a high ankle sprain and some disciplinary issues. Sanders will unfortunately miss after being moved to the Covid-19 list. A confirmed, symptomatic positive will keep him out for ten days, meaning no game against Carolina and doubt for his availability against the Bears.
New Orleans has gone 2-2 without Thomas, but how can they fare without Sanders as well? Sean Payton and Drew Brees have reputations for turning relative unknowns into weapons and they’ll need some of the magic this week. While we can’t develop an entire gameplan for them, we can look back at their week five matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers to get a glimpse at how they might approach this week.
Against the Chargers, the Saints of course did not have Michael Thomas. They also spent a considerable amount of time without Emmanuel Sanders on the field as well with their run-heavy gameplan. Or at least that’s the way it looked from afar. Upon further inspection, the gameplan without Sanders was fairly balanced. The former Bronco appeared in only 45 of the Saints 76 total offensive snaps, which includes a play negated by penalty. Many acknowledged the fact that UDFA Marquez Callaway actually out-snapped Sanders even though the veteran had a better day.
While that is true, the theory was also accompanied by the assumption that this had to do with the focus on the run game. However, play diversification was not lacking even without Sanders on the field. On those 31 plays without Thomas and Sanders, the Saints called 15 run plays and 16 passing plays. On those plays the Saints gained 46 rushing yards and scored the patented Brees leap touchdown. In the passing game, there were seven completions on 14 attempts for 44 yards and an interception. A 5-yard sack accounts for the fifteenth attempt.
That means the Saints only averaged 2.86 yards per carry and completed only about 50% of their passes without their best options in the receiving game. If you take away the one play negated by penalty, it evens the split 15 runs to 15 dropbacks and erases an incompletion to Taysom Hill.
Now while those averages probably drive a sense a panic to your hearts, don’t worry too much. Most of these plays took place on first or second down and didn’t include many of the go-to plays the Saints love to run. Not many targets to tight ends, only one pass to Alvin Kamara, and very little work in the extended run game (passes to the flats, swing passes, screens, etc). Those are all element that are reasonable to expect to be added against Carolina. During the game against the Chargers, these groupings were used early in downs as drive starters, run support, and rhythm plays. Here are the numbers by down. We’ll revisit these shortly.
First down: 14
Second down: 12
Third down: 5
Without both Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on the field, the Saints ran a lot of heavier personnel. Even in the typically lighter set of 11 personnel (one running back and one tight end), they often added in Taysom Hill as an additional tight end or receiver to help bulk up the group. The Saints ran a true one tight end and three wide receiver set only four times, one of which with Hill at quarterback. During those four plays the Saints ran twice with Kamara for four yards, threw to Kamara once for nine yards, and had a three-yard run by Taysom Hill from the quarterback position. Here is the full breakdown of sets run without Thomas and Sanders on the field.
11 Personnel: 12
1 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR, 2QBs: 7
1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs: 4 (1 with Taysom at QB)
1 RB, 1 TE, 2 WRs, 6 OL: 1
12 Personnel: 8
1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs: 3
1 RB, 2 TEs, 1 WR, 2 QBs: 3
1 RB, 2 TEs, 1 WR, 6 OL: 2
13 Personnel: 2
1 RB, 3 TEs, 1 WR: 2
21 Personnel: 2
2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs: 1 (Taysom at QB)
2 RBs, 1 TE, 1 WR, 6 OL: 1
22 Personnel: 6
2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR: 6
31 Personnel: 1
3 RBs, 1 TE, 1 WR: 1
Impressive that over only 31 plays, the Saints mustered up 11 different groupings with several different packages, some including Taysom at wide receiver or tight end, some of the one receiver sets featured Marquez Callaway while others featured Smith, etc. These types of adjustments and nuances are what will be necessary to keep the Carolina defense off-balance. This minutia is what keeps New Orleans unpredictable.
Some interesting patterns come to light examining these plays by player focus as opposed to the full group turnover. For instance, eight of Latavius Murray’s 11 week five rushing attempts took place without Sanders on the field. Murray is the team’s bruiser who will pick up tough yards early in downs or in close-yardage situations. It makes sense that the team would lean on him with bigger packages and blocking receivers on the field. Not that Sanders is any slouch in the blocking game, but Smith, Callaway, and Fowler are extremely talented in that area of the game. This week, without Thomas, Sanders, and Fowler who was recently moved to IR; look for Juwan Johnson and Austin Carr to find their way on the field for those blocking roles.
Looking at the snaps for the wideouts, Tre’Quan Smith, Bennie Fowler, and Marquez Callaway were the only active receivers aside from Sanders. This week, the Saints are adding back Deonte Harris from injury and brining up Johnson and Carr from the pracice squad. There should be plenty of snaps up for grabs behind Smith and Callaway.
Tre’Quan Smith paced the three receivers against the Chargers playing 20 of the 31 snaps without the team’s top wideouts. Marquez Callaway and Bennie Fowler tied as each played 15. Smith had one catch for four yards, Callaway caught one for six. Callaway also found his was on eight of the ten “heavy” sets in which only one wide receiver was feature. Smith carried the other two.
Two to watch
One situation where the Saints were hardly seen without Emmanuel Sanders that will be interesting to watch are two-minute drills. Of the 12 plays New Orleans ran within two minutes to halftime or the end of regulation, Sanders was present for eight. This is where communication and trust become paramount. Many will remember that it was the first half two-minute drill that seemed to help the Saints get in rhythm. How does not having either starter affect Brees’ ability to do that?
Remember that the Saints only ran five third down plays without Sanders against Los Angeles? The issue that’s glaring is that New Orleans only converted on one of those, the leaping Brees touchdown. To be fair, the Saints were only 5-15 when it came to third down efficiency in this game anyway. But when considering playing without Thomas and Sanders, questioning the team’s ability to extend drives is reasonable. They’ll key will be doing so on first and second down. That’s akin to what they did in their most recent contest converting 18 early first downs. Replicating that production should help alleviate any worry.
So look for the Saints to utilize heavy sets throughout this game and lean on the running backs both in the passing and run game. More involvement for Murray and Kamara early on will benefit the team as they can pile on yards after catch and yards after contact against a weak defense. Leaning on Kamara in the red zone proved beneficial early on in the season. The next biggest key aside from extending drives will be taking advantage of stacked boxes when Carolina inevitably deploys them. That will be on the shoulders on the young wideouts to help make that happen. Wouldn’t mind seeing a heavy dose Kamara and Jared Cook lined up out wide or in the slot to help with timing and rhythm for Brees.
This team has already found ways to win without its top target, following a near postponement thanks to a false positive, without their top corners, and of course all of last year’s challenges as well. Now it’s time to see if they can overcome adversity yet again, at least this time in front of 3,000 loyal fans.
Can the Saints find a way to win without Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, on Instagram at @SaintsCSC, and “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.