Even though all of the talk for the past two weeks has been focused around Drew Brees’ arm, arguably the biggest disappointment through three weeks of the Saints’ season was Emmanuel Sanders. The receiver, touted as Brees’ best second option, got a chance to shine with an injury to No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas. Against the Raiders and the Packers, he had just five catches to show for it.
Against the Lions, Sanders finally started to look like himself. He notched six catches for 93 yards, and he consistently looked like a threat while he was on the field. The question this raises, of course, is what changed.
For starters, Sanders looked more comfortable with Brees. Part of the slow start (not all of it, to be clear) could be attributed to the two building chemistry. It can be harder for quarterbacks to figure out how to throw with players like Sanders’ speed, which likely factored into the early struggles.
Perhaps more importantly, Sanders looked like he belongs in this offensive gameplan for the first time.
This might be the most trust Brees has put in one of his receivers all season. You see Sanders isolated topside against the Lions’ Cover 1 defense. Brees immediately recognizes this, and he drops in a perfect back-shoulder throw to Sanders. When thrown correctly, this play is impossible to cover.
Making things better, this was a 1st-and-10 playcall. Seeing Brees trust his receiver against man-to-man coverage has been a rarity so far this year. This is the perfect way to start to get Sanders going and breed his confidence. Even though his reputation is as a speedster, he can win physical battles as he does here. The is a good tone-setter for the Saints when they’re already down 14-0 early.
This completion to Sanders is less about physicality and more about reading the defense. The Lions sit back in a zone-man hybrid on this play, and Sanders is able to find the seam in the middle of the field. This is where Thomas thrives for the Saints. He can pick out the holes in a zone defense and find them, while having a mind-meld type of experience with Brees. This is the easiest 19 yards you can pick up if you’re the Saints’ offense. Sanders runs an in-and-up buttonhook, and Brees finds him with ease for a first down. This is what the Saints have missed without Thomas. Hopefully Sanders will be a nice complement to Thomas if Thomas does, in fact, return on Monday.
For the third possession in a row, the Saints complete a big pass to Sanders, and for the second possession in a row it’s off of play action. Once again, this is against zone coverage, but this play is just as much about Brees as it is about Sanders.
Brees lofts an absolutely GORGEOUS ball over the defense to Sanders on this play, who perfectly picks his way between four Lions defenders.
What the Saints did for Sanders on Sunday was simple: Go where the defense isn’t. It’s what they’ve been missing the past few weeks. The Lions’ corners were outmatched against Sanders and Tre’Quan Smith, and Brees and the Saints took advantage.
But above anything else, the Saints challenged the Lions. Sanders had three straight drives with double-digit yardage receptions. You can’t overstate how deflating that is for a defense.
The key now, of course, will be consistency. If Thomas does indeed return on Monday, the hope is that he’ll open things up for Sanders even more. However, with how easy Sanders made things look against both man and zone coverages on Sunday, that might not even be necessary.