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New Orleans Saints receivers band together to soften blow of losing Michael Thomas

'I believe we are all hurt by it, because we wanted to see him play'

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A collection of the best offensive photo from the Week 8 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tre'Quan Smith's debut for the 2021 NFL season didn't perfectly align with Michael Thomas' exit from it, but the fourth-year receiver can help soften the loss of his All-Pro teammate.

Thomas, who had ankle surgery in June, suffered a setback that could necessitate the need for another surgical procedure on his ankle. And Thomas, who set an NFL single-season record with 149 catches in 2019, when he was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year, was a hoped-for addition to the receiving corps as the year progressed. Instead, on Wednesday morning, he announced that he would miss the season.

But the Saints, 5-2 entering Sunday's game against Atlanta (3-4) in the Caesars Superdome, have constructed a three-game winning streak with a receiver room that has been led by a pair of undrafted players (Marquez Callaway, with 19 catches for a team-high 284 yards and three touchdowns, Deonte Harris, who has posted 15-271-2). And it now benefits from the return of Smith, who caught three passes for 33 yards and a touchdown in New Orleans' 36-27 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday.

"I thought they had a good game (against Tampa Bay)," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "We've got some younger guys. I think the addition of Kenny Stills has helped us, I think Deonte being back has helped us, I think Kevin White is continuing to get better. I think Lil'Jordan Humphrey – his experience and size and strength. Marquez. Tre'Quan is back.

"These guys are tough, they're competitive, and I like them. I'm not interested in your PFF grades or any of that other stuff. It just is what it is. I like this group. Obviously, you're better if you have Mike Thomas in that group, but we don't right now. And we don't have Jameis (Winston) at the quarterback position, and we don't' have a few other things. And that's just how our league can be sometimes."

Winston, too, will miss the rest of the season after tearing the ACL and damaging the MCL in his left knee. But that deflating news Monday was shoved aside by the equally deflating news Wednesday that Thomas' season never would get on track.

"It was surprising," Smith said. "It's really disappointing, because as a player and as a competitor, I know Mike wanted to be here and be a part of this season physically. But I know he'll be with us mentally. I believe we all are hurt by it, because we wanted to see him play. He's a big part of this offense. But in this league, the next man has always got to be prepared and ready to play."

Smith, it turns out, will be one of those next men. He missed the first five games with his own injury issue, but is ready to chip in for an offense that's averaging just 305.9 yards per game (180.9 passing).

"I definitely approach things the same way, it didn't change my mindset at all," Smith said of Thomas' injury. "Because as a player, you've just got to do what you can do to better the team.

"You've always got to be prepared for the next move, because literally in this game – within three seconds, one second – the whole game can change. The whole concept could change. So you literally always have to be prepared for things.

"Honestly, I'm just taking it one day at a time. I learned that I can't get ahead of myself for nothin'. I had big plans coming into this season, I had a setback. So I learned to just be mentally strong and just be focused and take it literally one day at a time, trying to finish one practice healthy."

Though the team already has played seven games without Thomas, and played nine regular-season games without him last season, Smith said the acclimation isn't as simple as it might sound.

"I wouldn't say it's easier, because we want him out there," he said. "We were hoping to get him out there. He wasn't already out there, but we've just got to stay prepared. We definitely wanted him to be back out there, we definitely miss him."

CLARIFICATION: Remember that spirited sideline debate between Smith and Winston during the Seattle game, when the quarterback (Winston) appeared to be lighting into the receiver (Smith)? That wasn't quite the story, a smiling Smith said. Here's the explanation, and it was as funny as it reads (all due respect to Callaway, who catches a couple of body blows in the process):

"So, the media is blowing it up," Smith said. "Literally, the exchange of words was, I came off the field and Sean asked me what happened. So I said, 'Jameis called the wrong play.' He said, 'What?' I said, 'Jameis called the wrong play.'

"So he asked Jameis, 'What did you call?' Jameis, he just repeated the play. I said, 'That's wrong.' Then Jameis yelled at me, but he yelled the play. And I walked away. Then I said, 'No! That's wrong!' But I apologized to Jameis, because he said the wrong play, but it was actually Callaway that messed up the play. I ran the right play. Callaway ran the wrong play. And that's just all it was.

"Being the veteran receiver of the group, other than Kenny Stills, I'll just say I took the blame and I apologized to Jameis, like, 'Yeah, you did call the right play.' And Callaway just got off free."

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