The New Orleans Saints' cornerbacks shouldn’t be surprised that Michael Thomas appears unstoppable on slant routes.
It’s a daily occurrence: Thomas runs the route and makes the catch with a cornerback draped all over his back, or he uses a jab step off the line of scrimmage to create separation and set up a long gain after the catch.
It’s impressive to watch Thomas run this route — not only because he often turns short passes into long gains, but because it’s so automatic.
“There are a lot of things that are hard to defend with Mike,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “He’s a physical guy. He plays with violence, especially when guys come to play him on a bump-and-run. I don’t think they realize how strong he is.”
The Saints do not often duplicate play calls. There are concepts that are repeated in the passing game on one side of the field or the other, but you won’t see the same play, run the same way, very often.
But one that shows up over and over is the quick slant to Thomas. It’s likely something that is often checked into based on what the defense is doing, but it was one of the most reliable calls in the team's arsenal last season.
The play usually contains just one route, with everyone else blocking or acting as a decoy. The Saints used the play 11 times last season with Thomas, and the rookie made nine catches for 81 yards. The only other time it was used, it resulted in an incompletion to Brandin Cooks. The year before, the Saints ran the play six times, connecting four times for 40 yards, according to The Advocate’s research.
There’s a reason the team likes this play so much: Thomas is there to make the play.
“(Thomas) is someone who I think is fairly physical at the line of scrimmage,” coach Sean Payton said. “He gives you some runs after the catch. It’s part of what we do, depending on what kind of coverages we get, but he does play with pretty good technique and leverage with his size.”
This isn’t something new. In fact, this was one of the reasons Thomas ended up in New Orleans. His size-speed-strength profile is that of a player who should be good at making contested catches, and his tape at Ohio State showed the same thing. He wasn’t often making downfield plays in college; he made his living in traffic, which led to him being a second-round pick.
Those same skills are showing up in New Orleans. Just look at how he was used last season: Most of his catches came on slants (17 for 211 yards), crossing routes (13 for 141) and hitches or comebacks (29 for 270). The hitch, the route he used to beat Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman twice last season, was easily his best. But the nature of the plays he’s making on slants during camp has caused it to be the most talked about route of the summer.
And maybe it will become his top weapon this season. Thomas said he has been working on it with wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson and has made some improvements to his technique.
“He’s coached a lot of great receivers who were able to run that route and perfect it,” Thomas said. “Just coming off the ball and always want that defender to always think like you’re going deep. Just working your craft and giving them different looks on how to run it.”
It’s hard to imagine Thomas being much better than he was last season. As a rookie, he caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns, but he could see more opportunities this season with Cooks now in New England.
But the other side of that is Thomas could now become more of a focal point for opposing defenses. It was starting to happen last season — Arizona put Patrick Peterson, its top cornerback, on Thomas during the second half — but it will be more common this season.
It will be telling to see how much attention defenses can pay to one player, since this offense still has a multitude of weapons. But Thomas isn’t buying the talk: He’ll find ways to get open and, when he does, he trusts the ball will find him.
“Honestly, I don’t really buy into that,” Thomas said. “I just know I got to get open and Drew Brees will find me, one, two or three. Tight end or running back, he’s going to find you. As long as I keep creating separation and putting that on film, I could be No. 2, but as long as I’m creating separation, my presence will be felt on the field.”
One way for Thomas to do that? Run a slant.