Bill Feig/Associated Press
The phone rings.
Michael Thomas answers, “It’s the New Orleans Saints.”
The receiver responds, “The NFL‘s best team—that’s who.”
Thomas’ performance during Sunday’s 45-35 victory over the previously unbeaten Los Angeles Rams will be long discussed because of his on-field production and touchdown celebration.
“That’s something that some kids don’t do, to pay homage to an old soul,” former Saints wide receiver Joe Horn said of Thomas’ cellphone tribute, per the Times-Picayune‘s Jeff Duncan. “For him to do it on a national stage took a lot of courage. I’m humbled.”
The young man’s domination only serves as a microcosm of the Saints’ overall success, though.
Since losing 48-40 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their season opener, the Saints have reeled off seven straight victories, with their latest being the most impressive while showing exactly why they are now the league’s creme de la creme.
Yes, Thomas became a legend. But it’s about so much more. The Saints’ roster is loaded with difference-makers at every level—which provides an edge over their competition.
The passing game has always been the hallmark of Sean Payton’s offense, and it starts with the NFL’s all-time leading passer, Drew Brees.
Brees has already thrown for more than 5,000 yards five different times. The 39-year-old quarterback threw for 30 or more touchdowns in nine consecutive seasons before the streak was snapped last season. He still set an NFL record with a 72.0 completion percentage in 2017.
Yet, the 18-year veteran may be in the midst of his best campaign. Brees threw for 346 yards and a season-high four touchdowns against the Rams defense, which entered the game as the league’s eighth-best unit. He’s even on pace to shatter his own record with a 76.3 completion percentage at the season’s halfway point.
Bill Feig/Associated Press
A standout surrounding cast is helping him achieve previously unheard of accuracy.
Thomas, of course, is the headliner. Brees’ favorite target blew past the Rams with 12 receptions for a franchise-record 211 yards, including the game-sealing 72-yard touchdown. His impact can’t be fully understood with basic statistics. Brees has never had a more reliable option, even during all of the previously mentioned ultra-productive campaigns.
“Credit to him for getting open and creating enough separation with his body control and everything he does to give me a place to throw the ball to him,” the quarterback said of his No. 1 target, per the Saints official site. “He makes a ton of contested [catches]. … Just a big-time player who is always ready to make big-time plays.”
When the ball is tossed into Thomas’ direction, he catches it. He ranks first overall in percentage of targets caught this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats:
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Michael Thomas hauled in 12 receptions for 211 yards and 1 TD (on 15 targets) in the Saints win against the Rams.
Thomas has caught 70 of 79 targets this season (88.6%), +18.0% Above Expectation, best among all players with more than 30 targets.
#LARvsNO #GoSaints https://t.co/kHpKor5dBN
With a nearly 90 percent catch rate, the 25-year-old wide receiver has Spider-Man-like sticky hands, yet he might not even be the team’s most dynamic weapon.
The NFL’s reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, Alvin Kamara, is as difficult to defend as they come. Kamara carried the ball 19 times for 82 yards and two touchdowns. The running back also caught four passes for 34 yards and another score. Those three scores placed the second-year back in the rarest of company, as ESPN noted:
NFL on ESPN @ESPNNFL
Alvin Kamara joins Jim Brown as the only players 23 or younger with 3+ TDs in 3 games in a single NFL season 🏈 https://t.co/BaZL5VZAvw
But everyone already knows about Brees, Thomas and Kamara. Other pieces demand far more attention for their stellar play.
Benjamin Watson has been around forever. OK, maybe it just seems like it. The 37-year-old tight end is still functional—even thriving—in his second Saints stint. Brees loves to look for the fellow aging veteran in key moments. The two connected for a 13-yard touchdown to establish a two-touchdown lead in Sunday’s second quarter.
Watson may never receive the volume others do, but defenses must account for him at all times or risk being burnt by the 2004 first-round pick.
As always, the offensive line never receives enough love.
Right now, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk form the NFL’s best tackle tandem. Armstead is an exceptional athlete who can mirror any edge-rusher or get out in space to make big blocks downfield. Ramczyk is a technician who has never been overwhelmed—even when thrust into the lineup last season as a rookie. He is quickly working his way into elite right tackle status.
Preventing edge pressure is always important. However, it’s a little different in New Orleans, where setting the depth of the pocket is crucial in front of a 6’0″ quarterback. Veteran center Max Unger has started all but one game since being traded for tight end Jimmy Graham prior to the 2015 campaign. Right guard Larry Warford provides a physical presence, while left guard Andrus Peat is a former first-round pick who found a home along the interior.
Butch Dill/Associated Press
Keep the following stat in mind: Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald entered Sunday’s play tied for the league lead with 10 sacks even though opponents double-teamed him 70 percent of the time, according to ESPN Los Angeles’ J.B. Long.
The Rams didn’t manage a single sack against Brees and Co. Zero.
All 10 of Donald’s sacks came in the previous five games. He looked unstoppable at points. But the Saints slowed him down more than any team he’s faced so far.
It’s not just slowing the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, either. The Rams’ front features Ndamukong Suh, Michael Brockers and the recently acquired Dante Fowler Jr. Pressure still wasn’t much of an issue.
Defensively, the Saints’ second-half performance is concerning after the team established an 18-point halftime lead, yet some positives were still present.
For example, the game’s best all-around back, Todd Gurley, only managed 79 yards after averaging 143.8 yards from scrimmage entering the contest. The Saints holding him to six receptions for 11 yards is especially impressive.
More than enough can be found on that side of the ball.
Cameron Jordan is still one of the league’s better defensive ends. Fellow first-round defensive end Marcus Davenport is dealing with a toe injury, but he’s expected to return later this season. Second-year linebacker Alex Anzalone snagged a key interception late in the first half. Reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore flashes shutdown capabilities. Finally, the team traded for Eli Apple this past week to serve as Lattimore’s bookend.
The group shouldn’t be viewed as a liability.
As good as the Kansas City Chiefs are, their defense is worse than the Saints’ and has far less talent, especially in the secondary. New Orleans has a better offensive line and more weapons than the New England Patriots. And, of course, the Rams faltered in the Big Easy.
The Saints answered the call against the NFL’s best, and everyone received the message.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.