Rams must find way to slow Michael Thomas to defeat Saints

Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints

The Los Angeles Rams are looking to avenge their Week 9 loss to the New Orleans Saints and return to the Super Bowl. The Rams’ defense must find a way to slow receiver Michael Thomas to win in New Orleans.

The last time the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints shared the same field, the two teams put on an offensive show in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Their 45-35 slugfest featured tremendous offensive performances for both teams, but it was Saints receiver Michael Thomas who set career highs with 211 yards and one touchdown on 12 receptions.

The game featured a unique flow for a Saints home game. While New Orleans capitalized on turnovers by the Rams in the first half, as usual, the Rams stormed back and made it a one-score game late in the fourth. But then Thomas broke free on a go route from the slot and scored on a 72-yard pass from Drew Brees.

Thomas was ultimately the biggest difference-maker in a game filled with stars. He completed one of the elite seasons in recent years as he tallied 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns on 125 receptions, and boasting an incredible 85 percent catch rate. He continued his dominance last week against the Philadelphia Eagles with 12 catches for 171 yards and one touchdown.

Like the AFC’s Conference Championship between the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, this is a rematch where the team that lost in the first game must make key defensive changes to overcome their foes this go-around.

The Rams have struggled in their secondary for most of the year for several reasons despite being one of the most talented units in the league. They finished 15th in defensive DVOA, 24th in passing yards per attempt, and 25th in touchdowns allowed through the air.

Marcus Peters went through a rough, but overblown spell without Aqib Talib, and has seen results even out thanks to his reliably good process. Talib has been good, but missed time and forced others into more prominent roles while he was out. The safety tandem of John Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner has been far from the impactful duo they were in 2017.

After diving into their Week 9 matchup to see what led to Thomas’ explosion, I found 10 of his targets came via man coverage and five against zone. Peters was mostly shadowing him at the time and though he was competitive at the catch point on several, Thomas was often too strong for him to have a major impact. It was also one of the first games in Peters’ career he’s shadowed like that, and the team has discontinued the practice since Talib’s return.

I cut all of his targets into three videos. The first two, including the one above, are against man coverage. The last one below is against zone.

One of the things that always stands out about Thomas’ game is how scheme independent he is. Whenever the topic of Thomas’ individual is brought up, there’s inevitably someone who gives significant credit to Brees and/or Sean Payton. While it’s fair to acknowledge both are great in their own right, Thomas doesn’t get schemed open often.

His speed for his density is elite thanks to his acceleration up to his fifth-gear catching defenders off guard. He combines this with his strength both pre- and post-catch, and reliable hands. And to top it off, his route running is as good as any big receiver in the NFL.

He’d be great anywhere regardless of his quarterback but happens to be in a place that more consistently feeds him.

The Rams utterly failed to disguise their intentions with coverages in their first matchup, making things too easy for Brees and Thomas. As you will notice in the two man coverage videos, just one of the man looks came with one deep safety, as opposed to the zone video below which has four two-high looks and one single-high pre-snap alignment.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has scaled back on anything special for much of the season compared to 2017, and it’s been problematic due to the personnel limitations on the unit. When the safeties adequately provide help to the corners, the defense is dangerous. As seen in this game, the unit was shredded when they failed to read the offensive plays quickly.

Moving Peters out of the slot and keeping the corners in their comfort zone will be helpful this time around. Talib can press without much fear of losing deep since Brees’ arm has appeared weak this season when going downfield. This is good since Talib has lost a step when trying to turn and run.

Things get more problematic when Thomas moves into the slot. Though his production was limited against Nickell Robey-Coleman, he has too much size for the Rams to live with that. More unique coverage options like having the linebackers or safeties shade to his side of the field along with a corner tracking him can help limit yards after the catch opportunities.

Even when looking at Thomas’ less impressive statistical games, he had a great impact on the field. An example is his five reception, 40-yard game against Dallas doesn’t show the two penalties he drew for another 22 yards, and several first-down conversions he had.

Being physical with Thomas can help, meaning the Saints may opt for the playmaking but tackle-averse Peters as a more favorable matchup. That can be playing with fire, but the strategy worked last time and the Saints need Thomas to go off to hang in with a reenergized Rams offense.

This is a situation where Phillips must have multiple options as he tries to slow Thomas. Shadowing one of his corners and giving help from a zone defender not only gives support for the corner but can filter targets to the Saints’ less-dangerous weapons.

The Rams mustn’t allow Thomas to be the biggest reason they lose. As painful as it could be to give up production to Tre’Quan Smith or Keith Kirkwood, it’s like a basketball team opting to force role players to take open shots as opposed to the star. Sometimes the math and risk won’t work out, but the process is much better regardless of the results.

After all, we’ve already seen what the 1st-team All-Pro is capable of if the Rams don’t properly slow Thomas.

Next: NFL Mock Draft: Where does Kyler Murray land?

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