NEW ORLEANS -- We sometimes forget how much we appreciate old things we used to love.
We see the bright, shiny newness of a toy and think it must be better because, you know, it’s new.
It’s not always.
Sometimes the old item provides the perfect complement to the new one.
That’s Pierre Thomas.
Say what you will about Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Both are matchup nightmares – Graham the tall, athletic train running roughshod through the secondary and Sproles the short, cat-quick dynamo sprinting past defenders underneath.
But Thomas is a player who isn’t always utilized in the Saints thick offensive playbook. We remember how important he was in previous seasons but forget how good he still is and can be.
Sunday against the Bears, he reminded us. Though his final game stats weren’t gaudy, they were substantial. He finished with 36 yards on 19 carries and caught nine passes for 55 yards. And he scored both of New Orleans’ touchdowns.
Sean Payton seems to know when best to use Thomas, who played 48 snaps, or 73 percent of the Saints’ offensive plays, Sunday. Sproles was in on only 15 plays. Graham got only 36.
He showed once again that he’s the only player who can see the field the way he does on the play that went for a touchdown (dissected below). He’s the only player who can wiggle his way and contort his body such to claim an important first down on a short-yardage play (dissected below).
“…Pierre’s played well on that field,” Payton said. “Obviously he’s from there (Chicago) but he’s someone that gets to the cavity in the defense the right way.” He kind of finds the crease. He had the two scores. The screen play was a big play for us before the half.”
He’s certainly not the key to the Saints offense; there are too many players who share that responsibility. What he is, however, is the savvy veteran who understands his role and his usage and his place on New Orleans’ roster.
“When my name is called, I go out there, do the job and do my best,” Thomas said. “That’s all I can ask for. When my name is called, I go out there and perform.”
Thomas is the exact type of player Drew Brees needs around him when the team not only needs to go conservative, but when the team has to have a play made at a critical time and the other two are taken care of down the field.
Below are the breakdowns of three key plays Thomas was critical to, as well as a few other plays. It’s our weekly ‘6 Plays From Sunday’ breakdown.
Saints ball, second-and-two from the Chicago 2, 6:02 to play in the second quarter
The Saints lined up with just one receiver on the field. Robert Meachem was lined up to left and short. Tim Lelito was in as a tackle eligible on the right and fullback Jed Collins was lined up off his right hip. Tight end Benjamin Watson was lined up behind Collins, inside of his left hip in a three-point stance.
Thomas was lined up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, directly behind Brees.
You’ve got to believe that Brees got the defensive alignment he was looking for; there was no audible. The Bears had four men with hands on the ground on the line and another two standing up across from Lelito and Collins.
Collins motioned to just inside right tackle Zach Strief’s left hip and the ball was snapped. Collins and Watson both went up the field in the gap between Strief and right guard Jahri Evans while Brees loosely faked a handoff to Thomas.
Chicago’s defense delays just enough trying to read the inside fake that Thomas is able to scoot out of the backfield with only Bears linebacker D.J. Williams on him.
Brees rolls to his right, then delivers a pass with Thomas in stride. At the line of scrimmage, Thomas is just too quick for Williams, forcing the linebacker to grab the running back by the back of the shoulder pads to bring him down. But Thomas is too strong and reaches for the goal line for the score and a 13-0 lead.
Saints ball, fourth-and-one at the Bears’ 27, :46 seconds to play in the second quarter:
New Orleans’ only previous attempt at a short-yardage situation saw them line up with three wide receivers. This time, it was an alignment that called for three linemen on each side of the center and a fullback.
Meachem was lined up wide right. Watson was at the left end while Lelito, once again in as a tackle eligible, was on the right. Collins was at fullback, about three yards in front of Thomas.
The Bears were in a four down-linemen look with a defensive back up tight on the right.
Thomas took the handoff and fought through a sea of players to slither through for a first down by two yards. He had to make it through the mess created when Ben Grubbs whiffed on his block of Williams, Brian de la Puente’s rodeo block of Nate Collins, Jahri Evans’ block of Lance Briggs and Zach Strief’s block of Corey Wootton.
All of those players found themselves on the ground in front of Thomas while James Anderson was missed by Collins.
What appears to bring Thomas down was a stumble over a stumbling Briggs with Anderson finishing it off, falling on the running back. It’s hard to say the play was clean and crisp, but it got the job done.
Interestingly, Thomas went to this gap from the outset instead of following Collins. There was a hole between Watson and Charles Brown, the left tackle who kicked out and pushed Charles Tillman yards away and to the ground.
Still, no other player wiggles his way through the line like Thomas does. There's a good chance the other running backs on the roster get stopped for a loss or at the line because they don't have Thomas' patience, vision and slipperiness.
Saints ball, second-and-10 at the Bears’ 25, :32 seconds to play in the second quarter:
New Orleans lined up with two receivers split wide right – Marques Colston off the line inside of Nick Toon, who was on the numbers. Jimmy Graham was a yard to the right of Brown with his hand in the ground. And Kenny Stills was lined up just inside the numbers to the left.
What makes this play work so beautifully is two things – the offensive linemen hurrying downfield and the flow of the receivers away from Thomas, who had released to the left through the line.
Graham drags across to his right across the line while Colston does an out route to the right. Toon and Stills both run straight down the field.
Brees briefly sells it, looking to his right and showing a quick hitch, something he does when trying to make defenders buy a short fake before he beats them long. He immediately turns to his left and dumps off a pass to Thomas, who has a caravan in front of him in Grubbs, de la Puente and Evans.
Grubbs gets to Tillman and goes for the legs but misses. Thinking quickly, he rolls forward into the defensive back, taking him out of the play. De la Puente, meanwhile, allows Briggs to run right by untouched. Briggs initially reads Graham coming across, but quickly turns and gives chase.
Evans puts enough of a body on the linebacker to finally get him out of the play. In doing so, he gives Thomas a cut back path, a questionable prospect considering the slick turf. But Thomas is sure-footed and cuts off of Evans’ heels.
He has daylight from there and only is touched when cornerback Tim Jennings tries to get to him at the goal line after sprinting from across the field.
It’s vintage Thomas and the perfect call at the perfect time.
“There’s a lot of things that defensively teams do, but the screen runner has patience and he’s got pretty good football, I don’t know if it’s I.Q., but pretty good football instincts because each one can change a little bit,” Payton said.
Added Evans, "I think that sometimes we come up with key blocks where we get guys down on the ground and Pierre is good at spacing those screens, so sometimes we just get in his way and he makes the right play"
Jenkins gets the sack
Chicago ball, First-and-10 at the Bears’ 20, 7:38 to play in the first quarter:
The Bears lined up two receivers in a stack formation to the left of the line. The Saints countered with a wide alignment by hybrid end Junior Galette. To his right was safety Kenny Vaccaro. And beside Vaccaro and lined up over the receivers was Malcolm Jenkins.
John Jenkins was lined up over the center and Cameron Jordan was lined up at left end. Ramon Humber was in what looks like a blitz stance to Jordan’s left hip.
At the snap, Jenkins and Vaccaro don’t take a receiver, leaving them instead to right cornerback Jabari Greer and the safety on the field. Both Vaccaro and Jenkins sprint inside with Galette and the angles confused Chicago’s line.
Vaccaro and Galette both go for Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson, Chicago’s left tackle and guard, respectively. This leaves Jenkins untended he has no problem catching up to Jay Cutler, sacking the quarterback and forcing a fumble that Jordan picked up and returned 11 yards.
What didn’t get talked about Sunday after the game was how much the play hinged on Keenan Lewis, New Orleans’ cornerback opposite of Jabari Greer, having coverage on Alshon Jeffery along with Humber.
Cutler, already in the shotgun, briefly pauses at the end of his three-step drop and looks for Jeffery, but he’s not open. The quarterback then starts running to the right, feeling Jenkins on his back.
The blitz was the first of the season for Jenkins and it resulted in a sack-fumble.
“From a schematic standpoint, we did a few things that really helped us,” Payton said. “We got home on a number of pressures where there was an unblocked guy four or five times and we got some sacks.”
Said Bears coach and offensive guru Marc Trestman, “I think (the blitzes) were problematic. We hadn’t really seen them. I thought Rob (Ryan) did a good job.”
Getting beat deep
One thing that hadn’t been a problem for the Saints until Sunday were big plays by receivers, this in spite of having played Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones and Vincent Jackson. The following are two second-half plays in which the Saints gave up gains of 58 and 42 yards.
Chicago ball, First-and-10 at the Bears’ 42, 6:41 to play in the third quarter:
Chicago lined up in a traditional two-wide set. The Saints were in a 4-3. Lewis was in coverage on Brandon Marshall while Vaccaro was standing up outside of Galette’s right side.
The Saints didn’t buy the run-fake and, in fact, all of the underneath was covered. And Lewis was on top of Marshall’s out route to the right.
But Jabari Greer, playing deep, got tangled up with Jeffery, who was on a deep post.
The reason Cutler doesn’t hit Jeffery for six points is pressure from Galette, whose deep rush on Bushrod forced the quarterback to abandon his full drop. Meanwhile, John Jenkins had shed his block and was about two steps from being in Cutler’s face. The quarterback wasn’t able to have a solid throwing motion and Jeffery had to pause and come back for the ball.
Chicago ball, First-and-10 at the Bears’ 40, 2:24 to play in the fourth quarter:
If you didn’t think Jeffery was having a great game by this point, FOX highlighted him, pointing out where he was aligned.
The Bears went three-wide and kept tight end Martellus Bennett in for extra protection along with running back Matt Forte. Marshall and Jeffery were lined up to the left.
At the snap, Marshall does a short out route and is all but uncovered. Cutler, though, sees what he likes – Jeffery in single coverage by Vaccaro. Jeffery is 6-foot-3. Vaccaro is listed at 6-0.
Cutler has plenty of time in the pocket and heaves the ball long for Jeffery, who makes the catch a step behind Vaccaro. After running step-for-step with the receiver for 15 yards, the rookie got in trouble trying to locate the ball. He slowed down long enough for Jeffery to gain a step. It was all he needed.
It’s a learning experience for Vaccaro and one I suspect we won’t see for a long time. He has shown an ability to quickly learn from mistakes this season.