NFL

Saints' position among offensive elite under threat without Michael Thomas

By Sports Desk July 23, 2021

The New Orleans Saints have long since enjoyed the benefit of continuity on offense in Sean Payton era, but in 2021 they will have to contend with some significant changes.

For the first time since the 2005 campaign, the Saints will begin a season with a quarterback not named Drew Brees as their starter.

Brees' retirement was regarded by some as overdue but, if his decision to ride off into the sunset was not viewed as a damaging one for New Orleans, the loss of the receiver with whom he had built a devastating rapport certainly is a significant blow.

NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported on Friday that Michael Thomas is expected to miss the start of the season having undergone ankle ligament surgery in June.

Thomas was limited to just seven games last year because of persistent ankle injuries and the procedure to fix those problems will, at least in the opening weeks, rob the Saints' 2021 starting quarterback of a two-time first-team All-Pro who has blossomed from 2016 second-round pick into one of the most dependable wideouts in the NFL.

Renowned for his route-running and his proficiency in making contested catches, Thomas produced at a historic level in 2019.

He broke the single-season receptions record with 149, racking up a career-high 1,725 receiving yards at an average of 107.8 per game.

Per Stats Perform data, Thomas registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the ball is catchable, on 76.1 per cent of his 184 targets.

That was the fourth-highest rate among wide receivers in the NFL. Only one player who finished above him, Corey Davis (69), had even 50 targets.

Thomas was tied for the second-most burn yards per route, trailing only Stefon Diggs (3.9) with an average of 3.6.

He got open on 83.2 per cent of his targets, though he did so with an average depth of target of 8.1 yards, illustrating the Saints' dependence on shorter passes in the latter stages of Brees' career.

Thomas will now miss out on the chance to quickly develop an even better understanding with the two quarterbacks, Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill, vying to be Brees' successor.

The frustration of that for the Saints will be two-fold. Winston's aggressiveness -- he was second in the NFL in air yards per attempt (10.7) in his last season as a starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2019 -- could unlock Thomas' potential as a downfield receiver to a greater extent than Brees did.

Meanwhile, Thomas' dependability would be a significant aid to an interception-prone quarterback or to a passer in Hill whose only four pro starts came last season.

Instead of enjoying those possible benefits, with Thomas on the sideline, Payton and the Saints have the imposing challenge of maintaining their offensive consistency without a Hall of Fame quarterback and without their All-Pro wide receiver.

The Saints are used to life among the NFL's offensive elite, but with the two most important parts of the equation on that side of the ball out of the picture, at least for the start of 2021, they face being removed from the top table.

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    Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Manchester United will propel Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side towards Champions League success, according to former Red Devil Louis Saha.

    Ronaldo has arrived back at Old Trafford, ending a 12-year absence from United after spells with Juventus and Real Madrid, with whom he won the continental competition four times.

    Saha was in his final bow with Alex Ferguson's side at the time of Ronaldo's first Champions League triumph, the Portugal forward scoring eight times en route to victory in the 2007-08 campaign.

    Returning as a 36-year-old goal poacher, the former Madrid star equalled Iker Casillas' appearance record in Europe against Young Boys in his 177th match, and Saha believes Ronaldo can drive Solskjaer's side to success.

    "I think so, yes, I think it [Ronaldo to United] is a game changer," Saha told Stats Perform when asked if United could win the Champions League.

    "I do think that the Champions League is the hardest competition. Yes, the Premier League is a marathon and you have five to six clubs who can actually win it.

    "But the Champions League in a way that it works when you have groups, you will definitely have to win [against] the bigger clubs or the biggest clubs that's for sure."

    Saha, who was speaking after United's 2-1 defeat to Young Boys, is convinced Solskjaer has a squad that is built to achieve at the highest level.

    "United has the balance that they didn't over the years to win the Champions League," he said. "We had maybe a less quality squad when we won the Champions League.

    "We have seen it with Chelsea, I don't think they had a great squad but it's about the team and about the team spirit and how you want to win it more than others.

    "The ability to not make any mistakes as they have done [against Young Boys], this is the type of challenge the Champions League will provide to any good side who wants to go win the Champions League.

    "So that's the formula, game by game this team can improve and definitely challenge for the victory [Champions League trophy]."

    Despite surrendering a one-goal lead against Young Boys on Tuesday, Ronaldo created another record with his opener – the longest gap between goals for the same club in the competition's history (12 years and 132 days).

    The Swiss side also became the 36th different club the forward has scored against as he extended his goal count to 135 goals in 177 games, 15 ahead of second-placed Lionel Messi in the all-time scoring list.

    With Ronaldo leading the line, Saha envisages continuous success for United for three reasons as they look to challenge domestically and in Europe.

    "The first one is because the guy is very obsessed in front of the goal," he said.

    "It will bring this kind of like obsession and demanding from his players around. The second one is his stats, he is a player who's going to score goals for fun.

    "He's already on three goals in two games. Let's say that it's a guarantee. If he plays you will have 25 to 30 goals, maybe not in the Premier League, but combined it's almost kind of a guarantee.

    "At the same time the actual impact mentally on other teams. You go there and you have [Raphael] Varane, [Jadon] Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo, combined with the already very talented squad.

    "I think he gives a different aura to the squad, it does bring definitely United forward in those aspects so it's a huge change for the title [race]. [They are] definitely up there with Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea I would say."

  • Heinicke delivers 'gutty' show to impress Rivera and give Washington a first win Heinicke delivers 'gutty' show to impress Rivera and give Washington a first win

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    Filling in for Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is out with a hip injury and likely not available until November, Heinicke threw two touchdown passes in a game for the first time in his short NFL career.

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    Now Heinicke has a chance to play a string of games for Washington, and even though he threw an interception with 2:22 remaining in Thursday night's game, he came good after that, commandeering the drive that resulted in Dustin Hopkins making a match-winning field goal.

    Heinicke finished the game with 34-for-46 passing for 336 yards and the two touchdowns, as Washington won their first game of the season.

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    "A lot of guys came up to me and said we've got one more chance to do it and fortunately we did. Defense came up and we went down and scored."

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  • Sancho's 2020-21 struggles suggest slow Man Utd start just part of the journey Sancho's 2020-21 struggles suggest slow Man Utd start just part of the journey

    Jadon Sancho's arrival at Manchester United was initially heralded as something of a game changer for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, their right-wing problems set to be a thing of the past with the England international seemingly guaranteeing goals and creativity. 

    But, as it did with most other stories in football, Cristiano Ronaldo's signing took the spotlight away and it seems everyone has been focused on the Portugal talisman. 

    That might actually be a helpful thing for Sancho, given his start to life at United has been about as explosive as a candle. He is there, in the background, but unless you look at him it is very easy to forget his existence. 

    Sancho thus far appears to have largely escaped full-scale criticism, with Ronaldo's goalscoring return and then United's embarrassing loss to Young Boys somewhat eclipsing the winger's muted introduction. 

    That is not to say his ineffectiveness has gone unnoticed, certainly not by supporters. But should they be concerned even this early in his United career? 

    'Every player has slow periods'

    Digging into Sancho's form after just four Premier League appearances probably seems a little premature. Maybe it is, but his slow start is certainly a talking point from United's perspective. 

    There could be any number of reasons for Sancho taking a little longer to get up to speed than hoped, such as a shortened pre-season after Euro 2020, adapting to a new system and team-mates, or even a loss of confidence following his spot-kick woes in the European Championship final. 

    But it is worth pointing out Sancho had a similarly tricky start to 2020-21, something his Borussia Dortmund coach at the time partly put down to United's interest. 

    "Every player has slow periods. There was a lot of talk about Jadon during the summer – something like that can be a factor," Lucien Favre said in October last year. "No player is consistently in top form for an entire year, that's impossible. You have to accept that." 

    Sancho's patchy form continued all the way up to Germany's mid-season break – at that point, he had not scored in 11 Bundesliga games and only laid on three assists. It was a far cry from his breakout season the previous campaign when he netted 17 and set up another 16 – that was the standard he set. 

    Though that in itself should have been seen as unmatchable given how much he outperformed his expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA). In total, he was involved in 14.9 more goals than the average player would have ordinarily expected given the quality of the chances, which was the most across the top five European leagues (Ciro Immobile was second with 13.5). 

    It was surely unsustainable form and that was what his struggles in the first half of 2020-21 lent further credence to. But how does his form back then compare to his first steps in the Premier League? 

    Lacking cohesion in new surroundings

    It must be highlighted again that Sancho's first four Premier League matches represent a small sample size, so you obviously have to be a little cautious when it comes to drawing conclusions – after all, he could potentially score a hat-trick against West Ham and his record of three goals from five games would look pretty handy. 

    Nevertheless, Sancho's early-season numbers certainly reflect the idea he is not offering a great deal to United. In fact, in terms of productivity, he's significantly down even on that difficult first few months of 2020-21. 

    For starters, he has managed just two shots in 184 minutes on the pitch, which is obviously poor for someone brought in to be an attacking threat, particularly given he averaged 2.4 every 90 minutes pre-Christmas last season. Though there is a positive spin – some players may take hopeful snapshots in an attempt to dig themselves out of a rut, but Sancho at least is not panicking in that sense. 

    His stunted productivity does extend to creativity, however. Creating one chance from open play every 90 minutes, he's down on both the pre- (1.6) and post-Christmas (2.5) periods from 2020-21, and the combined quality of the openings he has crafted have not been especially threatening with an average xA of 0.11 per 90 minutes. 

    Even when deemed to be struggling last season, Sancho's xA value per key pass was almost three times as high (0.32). Of course, Sancho was in surroundings that were familiar to him and linking with players whose habits and characteristics he was more comfortable with, and there's a lot to be said for the value of cohesion, especially when things aren't going your way. 

    That is presumably something Sancho will have to work on even harder at United, given he has limited experience of playing with his new team-mates. 

    Lacking confidence, playing it safe

    Building a natural familiarity can only be even more of a challenge when you appear devoid of confidence. We can only speculate as to why that may be the case, but it is a reasonable assumption to make that he is lacking in self-belief. 

    His ordeal at Euro 2020 – when he played just 96 minutes before being specifically sent on in the last seconds of extra time in the final and missed his spot-kick – and the subsequent racist abuse he suffered on social media must have had an impact on his mental state. It would be shocking if it had not, though who is to say if that is the sole cause? 

    What we can say is that Sancho's apparent dip in confidence seems to have manifested in a greater reluctance to take players on. He almost looks sheepish when faced up by defenders – it should be the other way round – and as such he is attempting significantly fewer dribbles. 

    He tried to beat his man 5.7 times per 90 minutes in the first part of 2020-21, and that rose to 6.9 after the mid-season break – he is attempting 3.9 dribbles and completing 1.5 each game in the Premier League for United. 

    He is touching the ball far less often (64.1 touches per 90 minutes compared to 84.8 in the first half of last season), though 64 touches hardly suggests he is being ignored by team-mates. 

    But there is always a chance that United players may end up looking to others if Sancho is not deemed enough of a threat – after all, his average of 4.9 shot-ending sequence involvements per game is 1.6 fewer than he managed across all of last season. 

    This in itself is interesting because it suggests that, although Sancho was not as much of a creator or finisher in the first part of 2020-21, his influence in the build-up remained constant over the two periods of the campaign. 

    Linked to that is the frequency with which he played passes (including crosses) into the box, averaging 9.4 each game pre-Christmas and 9.5 after the mid-season break. But during these early weeks with United, he is producing just 3.4 such passes every 90 minutes. 

    Obviously, Sancho's reasoning for this could quite possibly be that he has not seen team-mates in enough space, given most teams United face will have fairly packed defences. But fans would argue he is the sort of player who should be unlocking deep backlines either through his creativity or ability on the ball, and so far he has largely been unable to. 

    Nevertheless, it is still far too early for anyone to start suggesting Sancho is enduring something of a crisis. He should be afforded patience and time to build meaningful on-pitch relationships with others in the United squad. 

    But when it comes to attaining some confidence, Sancho might just need to take the odd leap of faith – he is playing it safe and that is not what United bought him for. 

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