Michael Thomas must understand the concept of a walkthrough.
The purpose of the exercise is right in the word. A walkthrough exists for players to walk through a set of plays. It is supposed to be low-key and nondescript, but it often isn’t when Thomas is on the field. He attacks every play the same way he would on a Sunday afternoon against the Carolina Panthers.
“He’s out there running full-speed routes,” cornerback Marshon Lattimore said.
No, seriously. Full speed. Drew Brees says that every moment for Thomas is a “Super Bowl rep,” and that he has to remind Thomas to “tone it down.” Tight end Ben Watson points to it as one of the things he admires about the wide receiver.
But does that level of intensity ever get difficult to deal with if you’re on the wrong side of it?
“I be telling him he’s doing the most,” Lattimore said. “That’s what he does, but it’s been working for him. He’s one of the best receivers in the league.”
His Twitter handle is Can't Guard Mike.
Cam Meredith thinks people don’t talk enough Thomas' accomplishments. The wide receiver caught 125 passes for 1,405 yards, further entrenching himself as one of the best at his position. So maybe that’s why Meredith wanted to use the right word to describe how the Saints wide receiver plays.
There are a lot of good ones to choose from, and a lot of people pick from the pool of passionate, intense, dedicated and consistent. Each of those is accurate, but none is singularly descriptive enough to get to the core of how Thomas plays.
Thomas is the guy who tweets his goals, meets them and then flexes on his opposition, both metaphorically and physically. Back in August, he dubbed his third season the “No Record is Safe Tour, Vol. 3,” and he went out and set several new records — most recently the Saints’ franchise mark for yards receiving in a season.
There is an edge to his game and his attitude toward it. That feeling palpitates in every movement, every step when watching him play. After reflecting on what he’s seen from his teammate this season, Meredith jumped on the word once it was suggested.
“That’s what I would call it: a violence,” Meredith said. “Everybody plays with some physicality, but I think he’s got just a little different edge on him at the top of his routes, and just off the line. He just comes off mean.”
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The fact that Thomas exceeds on physical routes should not be a surprise. He has been the NFL’s best receiver on curls and slants since he entered the league, and that did not change this year. He caught 20 curls on 23 targets for 193 yards, and 21-of-22 catchable targets on slants for 210 yards.
He wins the curls at the top of the route, with a deliberate turn back toward the quarterback or by shielding off an outmatched defensive back. Thomas typically wins his slants because of how comes off the line. If he has to fight through some press coverage or a jam on the way there, all the better.
“That’s part of his persona,” Watson said. “This game, to play it well and play it for a long time, you have to have some sort of edge to you. Whether it’s mental or physical, you have to have this anger or violence or anger or aggression, and that’s how he practices, that’s how he plays.”
The thing about Thomas having the best season of his career is that he also drew the most attention yet from defenses. He received the so-called star treatment many weeks, which often meant pairing up against the opposition’s top cornerback or seeing double coverage.
The Cleveland Browns threw a lot of attention at him during the second half of that game Sept. 16. The Eagles shifted most of their resources that direction during their meeting Nov. 16, freeing up other guys to make plays, and most recently, the Carolina Panthers showed him a lot of attention during a Week 17 meeting.
There are other games where defenses tried similar things. These are just the most notable examples, and Thomas still finished with 89, 92 and 29 yards in those games, respectively.
Thomas relishes the challenge when teams approach him this way.
“It is what it is. It’s what I signed up for,” he said. “It’s what’s presented, and I just have to got to respond and play fast. That’s what I’m here for.”
There aren’t a lot of times in which the defense is paying extra attention to someone else and leaving Thomas in an advantageous matchup. It happened at the end of the Los Angeles Rams game Nov. 4, when he scored against one-on-one coverage from Marcus Peters. But on most plays, Thomas has to work to get open.
And when the defense pays far too much attention to Thomas, and it is difficult to get him the ball, it is often still a victory because it opens up others to make plays.
“If he’s one-on-one, I like our odds,” Brees said. “Even when he’s two-on-one, it had better be a really good two-on-one or else there’s usually still a place you can throw the ball where he can get it and they can’t.”
Does that mean Brees sometimes throws it into double coverage to get Thomas the ball? Is he that difficult to cover?
“No, no, no,” coach Sean Payton said. “No one is getting doubled completely where you’re just forcing throws to them. Now our job during the week is to try and figure out how to take the double off of him or how to slow down (the double). … We don’t just drop back and throw the ball indiscriminately to a player.”
In November, when Michael Thomas paid homage to legendary Saints wide receiver Joe Horn, replicating his famous touchdown celebration by pulli…
The key is for Brees to be smart and pick his spots. There are times when Thomas beats a double-team or might create enough separation to earn a target while another player might not in the same situation.
Making those decisions is part of Brees’ duty as a quarterback. The definition of a smart play for Thomas is not the same as a smart play for another receiver. Thomas is the most trusted weapon in the Saints offense. He might be the most trusted weapon Brees has ever had. If he isn’t there yet, he’s on his way.
Getting to that level started in practice.
Maybe that's why Thomas never allows himself to walk: because he wants to get wherever he’s going as fast as possible.
Pete Carmichael is getting a look from other teams.