Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens: Limiting Michael Thomas (And JuJu Smith-Schuster)


Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens shows how the Falcons, Panthers, and Cowboys limited Saints receiver Michael Thomas to an average output of 5 catches, 42 yards, and no touchdowns during this three-week span and how it could apply to Steelers’ big-slot option, JuJu Smith-Schuster. 

Two of the premier big-slot receivers in the NFL Michael Thomas and JuJu-Smith-Schuster were among the most productive pass-catchers in the league last year.

Michael Thomas and JuJu Smith-Schuster—2018

Receiver Targets Rec Yds TDs
Thomas 147 125 1405 9
Smith-Schuster 166 111 1426 7

There was four-game stint during the final six weeks of the 2018 season where Thomas and the Saints passing game faltered. So much so, that Thomas didn’t earn top-30 production at his position from Weeks 12-17.

Three of those four opponents were divisional opponents—two of them the Carolina Panthers. This is notable because divisional opponents are often the first to find effective solutions for key rivals.

The Panthers demonstrated this was true, limiting Thomas to 12-targets, 78 yards, and no touchdowns during two of the final three weeks. When isolated this six-game stint to Weeks 12-13 against three teams that limited Thomas’ production, there was a dramatic difference and player and team output compared to the first 10 weeks of the years.

Michael Thomas’ and the Saints Average Outputs

Targets  Rec Yds TDs Tm Pts Total Pass TD INT
Wks 1-11 9.1 8.2 104.2 0.8 37.8 296.4 2.5 0.1
Wks 12-13, & 15 6 5 42 0 17.6 167 0.67 1

The idea for isolating these weeks came to mind during a conversation with Dwain McFarland on our RSP Cast Projection Series where I argued the potential trap-door for Smith-Schuster’s 2019 production at Footballguys.com:

Last year, Smith-Schuster earned 5 receptions resulting in plays of 35 yards or greater for a total 317 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns. We could reasonably expand that filter to receptions of at least 16 yards and have a reasonable argument that Brown’s skill influenced single coverage or zone coverage of these routes. This would account for another 21 catches, 445 yards, and a touchdown.

Yours truly did not chart these throws to make this an absolute figure, but hypothetically we’re looking at a range of 5-26 receptions, 317-762 yards, and 1-2 touchdowns that Brown roughly influenced because his skills demanded additional defensive attention and left Smith-Schuster with matchups he may not see in 2019.

Smith-Schuster earned 111 catches, 1,426 yards, and 7 touchdowns last year as the No.9 fantasy receiver. If we subtract the low and high range of production that hypothetically came from opponents accounting for Brown, we could see a best-case scenario of a continued high volume of catches but a drop in yardage and a slight decrease of touchdowns.

A 106-catch, 1,109-yard, and 6-score season is still a top-20 fantasy season in standard formats and top-12 production in PPR last year. The extreme low-end of this range is 85 catches, 664 yards, and 5 touchdowns.

A 7.8 yards-per-catch average is not a realistic expectation—even 33-year-old Larry Fitzgerald earn 9.7 yards per catch on 101 receptions in 2016 as the Cardinals’ big-slot option. Even so, one can see there’s a reason to be concerned about the Steelers failing to replace Brown with a proven threat who will command a safety’s attention.

This is not a popular viewpoint among the analyst community. Many have come around on the value of Smith-Schuster after initially questioning his ability to separate when he entered the league.

Back then, I argued that long speed isn’t the primary marker of a productive NFL receiver and explained how the rookie could be a productive big-play possession threat whose combination of work from the slot and perimeter would be reminiscent of peak-career Michael Crabtree.  Now that Antonio Brown is gone and it’s questionable if or when opposing defenses will afford enough respect to Brown’s replacements, I expressed the above concerns.

During our conversation, Dwain remembered Thomas’ mini-slump and recalled how the successful defenses applied multiple defenders in coverage to limit Thomas. Considering that Smith-Schuster earns a high degree of slot targets and lacks blazing speed for the perimeter game, it’s worthwhile to see how these teams limited Thomas because Steelers opponents could apply these methods to Smith-Schuster in 2019.

Atlanta: Force Longer Routes And Breaks to the QB

The Falcons placed 2-4 defenders on Thomas at various points of the route so whenever Drew Brees looked to Thomas in the route, there was an enhanced likelihood that Thomas appeared doubled or in the thick of a well-executed zone. This strategy took away the short options where Brees would have otherwise targeted Thomas immediately, and it influenced New Orleans to employ longer routes.

When Thomas was the primary target on longer-developing routes, Atlanta increased its chances of pressuring Brees. Although Atlanta lost this game by two touchdowns, keep in mind that the Falcons lacked a strong and healthy unit and held the Saints to a touchdown below its weekly points average.

Cowboys: Double or Triangulate Thomas, Lengthen Route Types, Play Deep-to-Short, And Physical Man Coverage Outside

Dallas had healthier starting-caliber cornerbacks, which led to greater confidence playing Thomas one-on-one on the perimeter with physical play early in the route. However, most of the Cowboys’ success came with similar methods as Atlanta:

  • Ask its linebackers to drop with Thomas during his stems to give Brees a potential snapshot of extra coverage.
  • Make Thomas the priority ahead of the check-down–even if the check-down yields first downs.
  • As a result of the methods above, force the Saints to target Thomas on deeper routes that heighten the potential for pressure.

Although Dallas gave up first downs to check-down options in the middle of the field, the compressed field benefited the Dallas defense once New Orleans entered the red zone. Dallas won this contest in a low-scoring affair, 12-7.

Panthers: Buzz Across Stems for Snap-Shot of Bracket or Double, Triangulate, And Force Longer Routes on Inside

By the time we reach the Panthers’ matchup, the coverage has common characteristics with the Falcons and Cowboys. One unique thing the Panthers did was have its linebackers and safeties earn depth on their buzzes to the flats when working east-west to chase a receiver other than Thomas.

This added depth presented a snapshot for Brees to potentially see a high-low bracket or something of this sort.

What It Means for Smith-Schuster

The Saints lacked a second receiver that defenses gave instant respect, which meant that opponents could dare Brees to look elsewhere aggressively. During this stretch where the defenses limited Thomas, Brees failed to do so and the offense’s production was a fraction of what it was during its first 10 weeks of the season.

Pittsburgh’s receiving corps must earn more respect from opponents than the Saints 2018 crew. If Donte Moncrief, James Washington, or Diontae Johnson cannot command tight coverage or earn early attention from defenders in the area of Smith-Schuster’s routes, we will see opponents deliver similar coverage snap-shots to Ben Roethlisberger and disrupt his rhythm.

Don’t expect disaster for Smith-Schuster, because not every team can impose this strategy without getting burned. However, we could see a handful of opponents execute this plan and create a scenario where Smith-Schuster’s output is reduced to short targets and minimal yardage.

After all, Antonio Brown could command this attention and still thrive. Considering the similarities between Smith-Schuster and Thomas, it’s reasonable to question if Smith-Schuster can. If he can’t, there will be 3-5 games where Smith-Schuster struggles and may look back at his 2018 stats as a career-year until the Steelers can find another receiver capable of handling the glare of the defensive spotlight.

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