Saints' passing game can't rely solely on Michael Thomas

METAIRIE, La. -- Michael Thomas has been the NFL’s most reliable go-to guy over the past two seasons with a league-high 198 catches and a startling catch rate of 83.5% over that span.

And Drew Brees makes no apologies for it. The New Orleans Saints quarterback gave a little chuckle Wednesday when he said, “If you can get the ball to [playmakers such as Thomas], you’re gonna get the ball to ‘em.”

So far, that formula has worked great for the 7-1 Saints -- even when backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater replaced the injured Brees in Weeks 3-7.

But it is a bit disconcerting that “Can’t Guard Mike” has 50 more targets, 40 more catches and 579 more receiving yards than anyone else on the Saints’ roster.

And Brees knows full well that the Saints need to avoid the same fate they encountered late last season, when their offense went a bit cold in December and January while they were unable to find enough consistent, reliable targets in the passing game beyond Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara.

“Yeah, listen, I think we learned a lot from that,” Brees said. “Bottom line is we have to be able to win with everyone. We can’t just win with Mike, we can’t just win with Alvin, who are two of the guys that get a lot of attention.

“We’ve got plenty of other guys that can beat you. And we just have to be able to prove that week in and week out.”

Thomas’ numbers are dazzling this year. His 73 catches have him on pace to break Marvin Harrison’s NFL record of 143 in a season. He also leads the NFL with 875 receiving yards and has four touchdown catches on a total of 89 targets.

But those numbers can be skewed depending on whether you are a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” type.

The Saints did not add any reinforcements at the trade deadline. (Wouldn't Emmanuel Sanders look nice in black and gold right about now?) But their improved health should help.

Kamara, tight end Jared Cook and receiver Tre’Quan Smith were back in practice Wednesday after they each missed at least two games before the Week 9 bye.

“Obviously, you understand opponents are gonna find a way -- or try to find a way -- to lean [their coverage or] double Mike, certainly in certain down and distances. And we've got to have other ways to get the ball to other receivers. I think we'll handle that all right,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who added that his biggest emphasis is being able to spread the ball around in critical situations.

“Red zone ... third down, obviously you want balance. And I think the thing that I've been encouraged with is we've improved each week relative to those situational areas,” Payton said.

Indeed, seven of the Saints’ nine red zone receptions in their past two games went to receivers other than Thomas. And 15 of their 19 third-down receptions in the past three weeks have gone to other players.

That’s promising, because to Payton’s point, the Saints’ reliance on Thomas and Kamara down the stretch last season was overwhelming.

Starting with their Week 13 flop at Dallas and through the playoffs, Thomas and Kamara accounted for exactly 71% of the Saints' red zone catches and 71% of their third-down catches.

In the NFC Championship Game loss to the Los Angeles Rams, Brees’ two touchdown passes went to seldom-used tight end Garrett Griffin and third-string quarterback Taysom Hill. Brees also just missed on a TD pass to backup tight end Dan Arnold, who failed to reel in a tough catch. And he infamously missed on a third-down pass to backup receiver Tommylee Lewis in the final minutes on the missed pass-interference call.

Payton and Brees have a long track record of being able to incorporate many players into the offense. Brees became the first quarterback ever to throw touchdown passes to 15 different players last season, including the playoffs. And he tied the NFL record last Thanksgiving -- against the same Atlanta Falcons team he’ll face this Sunday -- by throwing touchdown passes to four different undrafted players in a game.

But Payton and Brees aren’t just out here trying to be the exceptions to the rule. They know they need more bona fide playmakers if they want to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 10 years.

Veteran receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and Smith need to be part of the solution. But ideally the biggest boost can come from two of their biggest free-agent signings -- Cook and running back Latavius Murray.

Cook got off to a slow start this season after signing a two-year, $15 million contract to try to help fill the go-to-guy void. But he had his two best games in Week 5 and Week 6 with a combined seven catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns before suffering an ankle injury.

“A lot of times, the second half of the season is looked at as a new opportunity, kind of the slate clean, a chance to kind of restart over,” Cook said. “So I’m just looking at it as a new opportunity and a way to start with a clean slate and just pick up production from here.”

Cook said Brees communicated with him regularly throughout their injury rehabs, sending him film clips from both the Saints and other teams around the league with concepts that he thought might work.

Cook is eager to expand on the rapport he and Brees began developing this summer.

“Coming off a big year last year, yeah, of course, you always want to do good things, you always want to do big things and keep things moving positive,” said Cook, who had the best season of his 10-year career in 2018 with the Oakland Raiders, catching 68 passes for 896 yards and six touchdowns. “But I think the biggest test of a man is how he reacts kind of after adversity. So that’s just gonna be a big steppingstone for me going forward.”