There is no doubt that the New Orleans Saints’ Michael Thomas isn’t just the best young wide receiver in the NFL—even better than the Pittsburgh Steelers’ own JuJu Smith-Schuster—he is also one of the very best wide receivers in all of the National Football League.
In the first 45 games of his NFL career, the second-round pick has already caught 305 passes for 3649 yards with 22 touchdowns. He already set a new career-high with 109 receptions this year with 1267 receiving yards and has eight touchdowns as well. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the second time in 2018.
But at least comparatively speaking, teams have been holding him somewhat in check over the course of the past six games. During that time, he has not posted a 100-yard game and has three touchdowns—only one in the past five weeks.
Thomas has caught 39 passes for 387 yards and three touchdowns in the last six games for the Saints, certainly not bad numbers, but at that average—6.5 receptions for 64.5 yards and .5 touchdowns per game—the Pittsburgh Steelers can certainly live with that.
Because the Saints don’t really have many other significant receiving threats at the position. Their second-leading receiver is running back Alvin Kamara with 627 yards. Nobody else, coming into this game, has even caught passes for 400 yards. In comparison, the Steelers have five players with over 400 receiving yards.
The Steelers can afford to, and should, devote heavy resources to keeping Thomas in check as much as they possibly can, given the circumstances. It’s not exactly a secret that he is Drew Brees’ comfort. The pair have converted on an absolutely astonishing 86 percent of their targets this season. I’m just going to guess that’s the highest rate for a 100-reception season in NFL history.
Take Thomas away as a comfortable option and you force Brees to take more chances, and he has been giving the ball away with more frequency lately. The Pro Bowler has four interceptions over the past four games after having just one in the first 10.
He has averaged fewer than 10 yards per reception for four consecutive games and in five of the last six, and that’s how I would like Thomas to remain for today’s game. Quantity over quality is fine. Similar to Keenan Allen a few weeks ago, except without the fluke touchdown.
Stick Joe Haden on Thomas, roll coverage in his direction, and be done with it. I’m not saying it’s that simple or that it will give them the win, but he—and Kamara of course—are the players you don’t want to let be the ones to beat you.