Michael Thomas back to peak form in time for Saints' playoff run

METAIRIE, La. -- Taysom Hill was asked by the Fox broadcast crew before his last start to name his best throw.

“Any throw to 13,” the New Orleans Saints quarterback responded.

He wasn't exaggerating. In three starts, Hill has thrown 38% of his pass attempts in Michael Thomas' direction for a combined total of 22 catches, 259 yards and 13 first downs.

Thomas has been an invaluable go-to guy for Hill, just as he has always been for Drew Brees and just as he was during Teddy Bridgewater's five-game stint as the Saints' starting quarterback last year.

"Mike Thomas is phenomenal,” Hill said after they connected nine times for 105 yards in Sunday's 21-16 win at Atlanta. “He's a big, strong, physical receiver. Such a security blanket for a quarterback early in his career. Because I know that dude's gonna fight on every play.

“So big, strong and physical that if you make the right throw, he's open. So, man, I appreciate how hard he plays, how competitive he is. And I love playing with him."

Thomas' value to the Saints is hardly a secret. He was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year for 2019 after setting the NFL record for catches in one season with 149.

But it's worth noting that Thomas' reemergence as a dominant presence bodes extremely well for their playoff hopes, whether Brees returns to the lineup soon or not. It's remarkable to think the Saints are 10-2 despite that dynamic duo having played only two full games together so far this season.

It feels like ancient history now, but it was less than two months ago when there was still some doubt over how quickly Thomas would be able to get back into this go-to role in New Orleans. He missed a total of six games from Weeks 2-8 because of a high ankle sprain, a hamstring injury and a one-game disciplinary benching for an altercation in practice that included him punching teammate C.J. Gardner-Johnson. A rumor emerged that Thomas might seek a trade -- though it was quickly debunked by Saints coach Sean Payton, among others.

Then Thomas returned to the lineup in time for the Saints' most definitive win of the season -- 38-3 at Tampa Bay in Week 9. And the positive trend has continued ever since.

“First off, I'm proud of him because I know it's been a grind working back,” Payton said. "He's still trying to get to 100%. Obviously the injury he had was significant. But, man, he's come up with some big plays here. And for a quarterback new in the lineup, to have that target and someone who's gonna come down with the ball, make plays, that's a big deal. So, he's doing well.”

In five games with Bridgewater at quarterback last year, Thomas caught 42 passes for 551 yards and three touchdowns.

“Well, look, it starts with being a great receiver,” Payton said. “He's able to separate, he gives you a great target radius, an area to throw to. And I think, man, that suits anybody who's passing the ball to him. And so the key each week is to find different route concepts that give him those opportunities and continue to find more of those, even in the red zone.”

Thomas doesn't have a touchdown catch in six games played this season. But even when he's not the one scoring, he obviously makes the rest of New Orleans' offense more difficult to defend. Hill threw the first TD pass of his career this past Sunday to wide-open receiver Tre'Quan Smith while the defense swarmed to Thomas. Hill followed up with a TD pass to tight end Jared Cook.

“It opens [the offense] up,” Saints running back Alvin Kamara said. “You see what happens when he's healthy and he's feeling it and he's in the groove. He can kill you if you don't account for him. So he was able to get some good looks and come down with the ball in some critical situations.

“We love it when he's healthy.”

Thomas came up plenty clutch himself in Week 13. Seven of his nine catches went for first downs, including a terrific 18-yard catch on third-and-17 and a pair of six-yarders on third-and-short plays.

"Whatever [Hill] asks for me to do, however he wants me to run it and wherever he needs me to be, when my number's called I'm trying to be there and be exactly where he needs me to be,” Thomas said. “So, we've just been working on that in practice. He's improved week in and week out. The sky's the limit for him, because he's a guy that wants to learn and is willing to get better. And I love that about him.

“Whenever you have a guy like that on your team, we just want to help him and make him right and complement him and make his job that much easier when he throws you the ball."

A lot of things get made right when Thomas is on the field.