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Saints Film Room: How Thomas can kickstart the Saints passing attack against Chicago

It looks like Brees should have all of weapons back in the Saints’ second showdown with the Bears — one of those being the 2019 NFL Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas absolutely lit up the Chicago Bears last year, hauling in nine of 10 targets for 131 yards receiving.

The Saints were completely without that production when playing the Bears this year. And while they left Solider Field with a W, you could tell it was a struggle to move the ball consistently through the air all game.

Not including a 47 yard catch and run by Alvin Kamara due to a bust in coverage by Chicago, Brees averaged 5.8 yards per attempt and threw two balls in overtime that should’ve been picks but were dropped — one that easily could’ve been a pick-six by Roquan Smith.

And a lot of that was because guys just weren’t getting open.

Like on this play where there’s nothing downfield and Brees is forces to check down:

Or the near-pick-six where Jared Cook didn’t gain any separation on a quick out from the slot:

So, how much of a boost is it to have MT back in the playoffs? Oh, it’s huge.

It’s huge simply because he’s someone who can create separation and provide easy throws for Brees on a consistent basis.

The last time MT saw the Bears defense, he did most of his damage on in-breaking routes, grabbing all three targets that were between the numbers and in the intermediate level of the field (10-19 yards) for 53 yards.

All three of these also came off of play action, as Teddy Bridgewater utilized the overzealousness of the Bears linebackers against them.

As you can see, the threat of the run fakes yanks them down, and the ball is fitted to MT right behind their heads for a chunk gain.

This intermediate level of the field will be important because on clear passing downs, the Bears like to sit back in zone — whether it be Quarters, Cover 6 (of which we’ll get into later) or Cover 3. And when Brees has receivers he’s confident in, he’s really good at manipulating linebackers and opening up holes in zones with his eyes.

The Bears’ best linebacker by far — Roquan Smith — has also missed practice all week, so Danny Trevathan and whoever else they trot out at LB should be ripe for the picking. Whether it be biting on play action fakes or not carrying crossers/seams up the field, Brees should find ways to exploit them.

The Bears will also probably have their eyes on Alvin Kamara, who looks like he’ll be playing Sunday, after the game he had against them in Week 8 — with nine catches for 96 yards (You can read about that performance here). And if they’re focused on taking him away underneath, that’s either one less pass rusher or one less deep defender out there, leaving more lanes open in the intermediate-to-deep levels of the field.

This is more relevant now, considering Brees has been attacking downfield more often since returning from injury.

His average depth of target in the last three weeks is 8.9 yards, compared to 5.9 yards from Weeks 1-10.

That’s a full three yard difference, and some who cover the Saints, including Nick Underhill, think it’s because his shoulder feels better after having a break.

And while that aggressiveness has caused a few more turnover-worthy passes in the process, it’s good to see he’s still got some juice in that arm. But with MT back, you’ve got to believe that he won’t be throwing into as many tight windows due to receivers not getting separation. This will reduce those turnover-worthy throws.

To get a better idea of how MT can best be utilized in this game and take this offense to the next level, I grinded some Bears tape. Here are some matchups I like for him:

Weak side slot WR on long down and distances

One thing I noticed about the Bears pass defense in their game against the Packers last week is they like to deploy Cover 6 (C4 to one side and C2 to the other) on 2nd/3rd and longs. But exactly how they deploy them is what’s interesting.

Almost always on these plays, they present the Cover 2 side to the trips or strong side of the formation, leaving three underneath defenders and only one over the top.

But on the weak side, they have the Cover 4 side, meaning there’s really only one underneath defender and two over the top.

Unless they adjust this due to the matchup, that slot position to the weak side on 2nd-and-longs should be an automatic MT Option Route call. Because if the Bears are going to be in Nickel personnel, it’s almost surely going to be a linebacker matched up on him — BBQ chicken — MT can just size him up and decide which way he wants to break for what could be an easy 5-10 yards every time.

Middle slot receiver to the trips side

One way the Packers really freed up Davante Adams in Week 17 was by placing him in the middle slot position to the trips receiver side and having the slot receiver to the inside of him basically run a clear-out route to bait the inside coverage and leave Adams in the open lane outside of them.

This worked against Man coverage, as you can see above, and zone:

This would be a tendency breaker, as Thomas rarely lines up in this spot. Typically, when he’s in the slot, it’s to the two-receiver side. But it seems like a good way to attack this defense, which is keen on trying to take away easy reads over the middle of the field.

The Bears like to go Cover 1 Man on third downs, with either a robber role in the middle of the field, a safety shaded towards a certain receiver or both. This would make it hard to double him from the middle slot position and clear out that robber player for quick, in-breaking routes.

Out wide, creating opportunities for others

I like the matchups for Thomas in the slot when the Bears show a zone look on later downs, but on early downs, outside might be the best place.

The Bears like to go Cover 3 Zone on first downs. According to a chart by Nick Underhill, they play that coverage on 37% of their first down snaps.

From this look, sometimes they will shade the one-high safety over towards a receiver, like they do on Davante Adams here.

Look at what this creates — a wide open path to the deep middle of the field for Valdes-Scantling on the deep post route. Luckily for Chicago, he drops it.

If they’re going to put this much attention towards Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders has the capabilities to get downfield quickly and make big plays, as we’ve seen on numerous occasions this year.

And if they don’t double MT on these one-high looks, then you just rely on him to win his one-on-one matchups outside.

All of this looks good on paper, but they’ve got to go out and execute it against a really solid defense that mixes up what they do and is very experienced.

They’re fourth in the NFL in successful play rate allowed: (33.7%) and 11th in Estimated Points Added (EPA) per play allowed: (-0.002) this year, via PFF. So, while they may not be the absolutely dominant defense of 2018, they’re still one of the better ones you’ll find.

And they find this success behind a very solid pass rush — consisting of Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols and Mario Edwards Jr. — and aggressive secondary play — with Kyle Fuller, Jaylon Johnson and Eddie Jackson back there.

They have a forced incompletion rate of 10.8% (T-7th and tied with the Saints) and a pressure % of 34.7% (8th).

The main worry I have in this game is the interior pressure Hicks and company can provide against Cesar Ruiz, who got annihilated in Chicago in Week 8, allowing EIGHT total pressures. He’s played better as of late though, so Brees will just have to hope he’s figured some things out by now.

I think this is a game NOLA should win comfortably, if they don’t turn the ball over a ton. As long as they don’t make too many critical mistakes, they have enough high-level playmakers on offense to play within themselves and put together some long, successful drives.

I’ll be looking to see how aggressive Sean Payton is, now that she has his best receiver back, as he was a bit too predictable with early down runs last time they saw the Bears, for my liking. Hopefully, he opens the playbook up a bit and let’s this offense cook with hot grease.

We’ve waited a long time now to see this offensive group back at full strength. Now, it’s time for them to show the league what they’re capable of.

How do you think the passing game will fare against the Bears? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “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 @AndrewBell_98.