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Film Study: Michael Thomas’s return opens field up for Drew Brees in Saints passing game

Thomas’ impeccable ability to create separation has been sorely missed by the Saints

NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Chicago Bears at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’s stat-line against the Chicago Bears in the Saints’ 21-9 Wild Card Weekend win looked like the kind of efficient stat-line fans came to expect from him from 2017-2019. Brees was 28 of 39 for 265 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with no interceptions. While not exactly a barnburner, there was a confidence in how he was throwing that hasn’t always been there for him in recent weeks.

A big part of that confidence undoubtedly came from the return of Michael Thomas, his favorite target. While Deonte Harris was the leading receiver for the Saints with 83 yards on seven catches, Thomas also logged five catches of his own for 73 yards, a nice return to form after missing the last three weeks of the regular season due to injury.

Thomas’ return, however, didn’t just benefit Brees. It benefited every Saints receiver on the roster to some degree. Seeing a player consistently demand attention in the passing game is huge, and perhaps equally importantly, Thomas is one of the NFL’s most intelligent receivers in reading zone coverages and poking holes in them, making him the perfect pairing for a quarterback as instinctive as Brees.

Pop quiz: If Thomas is only running slants, what is it that makes him so difficult to defend? The answer is that not matter what route he runs, he doesn’t run it before the play starts. His first priority is beating his man off the line of scrimmage.

This is a play design that is all too familiar for Saints opponents. Thomas is getting inside of his man on a slant route, while Alvin Kamara sits like it’s a screen. Meanwhile, Danny Trevathan has turned his hips inside, while Khalil Mack is covering the flat for the Bears.

Brees and Thomas both see the small gap in the zone coverage, and Brees does what he does best: Throws him open. Indeed, look at the window Brees gets this ball into:

Thomas emboldens Brees to make throws like this, and this was the first third down of the game for the Saints. The result is an easy conversion, but it comes with confidence in receivers and your arm. It’s also a great tone-setter for a Saints offense that struggled on third down the first time the Saints played the Bears.

Another part of Thomas’ game is how much attention he commands in the passing game. This is on a 1st and 5, so naturally the Saints want to take a shot. The Bears are playing with one safety high, while the Saints have Emmanuel Sanders running a post and Thomas running an out from the opposite slot.

If Brees wanted to go to Thomas on this play, he’d be letting it fly about here. Thomas is breaking out of his route, and the safety is still in his same spot. Brees has had his eyes on Thomas the whole time.

Though the safety held out as long as he could, he eventually breaks down to Thomas. As soon as Brees sees that, his head swivels back to Sanders. Brees lets it go to Sanders. Though the play results in an incompletion, it opens things up for the Saints. Shoutout to the offensive line as well, who created enough time for Brees to go through this progressions.

On the very next play, we get what looks like vintage Thomas. With the Bears sitting back in zone, Thomas runs a hard three-step curl. But once again, he demonstrates how ridiculously in-sync he is with Brees coming out of it.

If you’re wondering why passing in the red zone is so difficult, look no further than this player. Brees looks like he’s about to throw this pass into the chest of Barkevious Mingo as Thomas comes out of his break. However, Brees and Thomas both know where the space is.

Brees hits Thomas on the inside shoulder, and Mingo is left wondering how in the world he missed that ball going by his ear. The result is a touchdown for the Saints.

Thomas had nine touchdown catches in three of his first four years, and that timing is why. His ability to pick apart a defense in zone is unmatched, and it often looks like a backyard football style of play. The Saints were fifth in the league in red zone touchdown percentage, sitting at just over 72 percent. Thomas coming back only makes them better.

Thomas was relatively quiet for the rest of the game, with the first drive acting as a teaser. The gameplan against the Bears quickly became to run out time. That likely won’t be the case against the Buccaneers, and the Saints may need to lean on Thomas more.

Thomas brings so much more than receptions to the table. The most dramatic changes he brings to the Saints offense is in Brees’ confidence. Brees having a receiver who is as good at reading defenses as he is translates to more big plays, not just for Thomas, but for the Saints offense. That’s good news moving forward, as they’ll need those plays against the Buccaneers next Sunday.

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