METAIRIE, La. — Friday night versus the Raiders, a proven veteran weapon returns to the Saints offense. Versatile running back Pierre Thomas says he’s anxious to get back to work after resting an undisclosed leg injury for a week.
“I am ready to play on Friday. I am ready to hit another team besides my own players,” Thomas said. “I really don’t like being hurt and I just want to get back out there on the field with my teammates. They were being smart with me, just holding me back, making sure everything was good. I have these fresh legs. I am good and I’m glad to be back with these guys.”
Back in 2007, many likely considered it a risky decision: cutting 4th-rounder Antonio Pittman from Ohio State whom the Saints traded up to snag, in order to keep a relatively unknown free agent out of Illinois who struggled just to find an agent.
But Sean Payton made the call, believing Thomas was something special.
Thomas celebrated the news by jumping up and down on his bed, and the long-shot has been delivering for the Black and Gold ever since, especially when he’s in position to run the screen pass.
Many consider Thomas to be one of the league’s elite screen pass halfbacks.
“The origin of how I run the screen pass comes from when I was at Illinois. We had coaches there that stressed to run that play and not tip it off,” Thomas said. “It is a play that calls for some discipline not to tip it off to the linebacker, and I had a knack for it.”
Thomas says the key to the screen pass is to execute the play as if he’s headed downfield for a pass, then employ some acting skills.
“If you deviate in any way, that linebacker has studied you so much that he will sniff it out and blow that play up and quick,” Thomas said. “So, that is the first thing: to run the screen like I am headed downfield for a pass.”
The Saints pride themselves on sporting a deep arsenal of weapons for Drew Brees, who has both the luxury and responsibility of keeping all of his targets satiated. Over the past three seasons, Thomas has hauled in 118 passes. It’s evidence of Brees’ confidence in Thomas, but the Chicago native is quick to applaud the role his quarterback plays in the successful execution of the screen.
“You need the quarterback to act it out also. If you watch, Drew quickly glances downfield, and he tries to freeze that linebacker and safety in place. It buys me a second or two for me to get into position,” Thomas said. “Drew also has a knack for throwing the ball over those long arms, and he puts the ball in space for me. I don’t have to really reach out for the grab. Most of the time it just kinda plops right in my hands, and there is little wasted motion. Drew ran that play so well out in San Diego with LaDainian Tomlinson. LT was a great runner and Hall of Famer, but he could run that screen play to perfection too.”
But catching the ball is just phase one of a successful screen. Then Thomas must make the correct decisions to earn those precious yards after the catch. That requires patience.
“You have to be a little patient as a runner once you make the catch to find that open gap downfield,” Thomas said. “Sometimes you see runners make the catch and the blocking set-up is there, but they run up the back of their own blockers and it eliminates some yardage you can make downfield.”
NFL analyst Mike Detillier believes that patience and intrinsic know-how are a critical part of Thomas’ success, and what sets him apart from so many others.
“Once Pierre makes that grab, he has great instincts in the open to make the right cuts and decisions. That’s part of what makes him so successful at the screen,” Detillier said.
Thomas credits his peripheral vision with allowing him to see where the defense is establishing its counter attack.
“If the blocking shapes up inside, I run to the outside. If the blocking sets up outside, I run inside.
My frontline blockers are very important and also the way the receivers will throw a block downfield for me,” Thomas said. “But my quickness and my vision make it a play that I run pretty good, and we work on it a lot. It has a lot to do with just disguising that play a little, excellent blocking and also them letting me use my tools as a runner to create an avenue for me to head into open field. I like my chances when I am one-on-one downfield with a defensive back, and I try and either overpower him or get around him.”
Detillier compares Thomas’ skills to a former LSU standout, who went on to even more success as a pro under Bill Belichick.
“In many ways, kind of like what Kevin Faulk did for so many years with New England, and he was fantastic in that part of the game,” says Detillier. “He told me the screen was all about really ‘acting’ a little, getting great blocks, and then he let his field running instincts take over.”
Much like Faulk and Brady, opponents know Thomas and Brees will at some point break out the screen, but it’s still proven difficult to defend.
“They know the Saints will run it, but most teams have been ineffective at stopping it, partially because at how adept this offense is at spreading the ball out” Detillier said.
Thomas agrees that the Black and Gold’s diversity is key. Payton, in fact, refers to Thomas and his fellow running backs Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles as “The Three Horsemen.”
“You might know it will happen, but you don’t know when. Sean does a good job calling that play at the right time,” Thomas said. “Coach has a knack for making that call for the screen at the right time. Darren (Sproles) catches the screen real well too.”
Detillier says Thomas is the most effective screen weapon on the Saints roster though, and in fact, the best the Black and Gold has seen in a decades.
“No one in a Saints uniform has run that play like Pierre since Dalton Hilliard back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. That’s a long time,” Detillier said.