No word yet on whether New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas will be back for Sunday's Wild Card playoff game against Chicago in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Thomas, who had 40 catches for 438 yards in seven games during the regular season, was placed on injured reserve Dec. 19 after battling through ankle and hamstring injuries most of the year. Last year, he set the NFL single-season record with 149 catches for a franchise-record 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns.
"I'm going to see what this week holds," Saints Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "Currently, he's still on reserve/injured. I know he's been working at it and trying to get back. But we'll get a better feel this week as to the progress he's made. Hopefully, that's significant."
Thomas had two 100-yard receiving games during the regular season.
Whomever the Saints dress Sunday will play in front of about 3,000 fans due to Covid-19 restrictions. Payton jokingly said he had a remedy as to how a home-field advantage could have been created for New Orleans.
"I don't even know how many fans we're going to have, or if it's been announced yet," he said. "Can you create one? It's the team creating its excitement and generating its excitement. I think you've got to be ready ready. But I think this year, uniquely this year, the away games for any of these opponents is not as daunting maybe as it would be when you have to go in and deal with the crowd noise and all the other factors.
"I brought up the idea of testing 50,000 people and quarantining them in a hotel and having, like, the most safest Superdome known to man, scientifically. Bus them, they've tested every day and you've got a Covid-free facility. I think that's possible. I don't know if it's taken off or not.
"It can be done. It can be done. But we focus on what we can control. You know what's interesting? It's been different, and then pretty soon it's not different any more, it's what you know. And so you get used to it. I think the next time teams are playing with crowds will be different."
GRANT PAYS OFF: The Saints have created different ways to win games, using myriad players this season. One of them was cornerback Grant Haley, promoted from the practice squad last Saturday in order to play against Carolina in the Saints' depleted defensive backfield. Haley responded with his first career interceptions and a team-high six tackles.
"A lot of guys have played, and I'm encouraged with the guys that have stepped in and had to play," Payton said. "Grant just got a game ball from last week's game, he was outstanding. The thing that you try to visualize is how you want the game to unfold coming up, how do you see it unfolding – part of that is your personnel – and sometimes it can take on a life of its own during the game."
PLAY ACTION D: Payton provided a very detailed answer on how challenging it can be for a team to defend against an opponent's play action.
"It becomes a little bit easier if the running game isn't having the desired success that your opponent wants," he said. "But the conflicts that take place on the back side – on a wide zone, the backside end is closing, he might be the player that they're not blocking and so he's the free player that can close, and so if that ball cuts up he's there to make the tackle. Well then, there's a conflict when the quarterback comes off of that and now is in a boot, and we've got to redirect.
"And then our backside eyes at linebacker, relative to what looks like the wide zone but here comes the swap boot, where like a tight end or receiver comes back against the grain, comes from the running side and out to the weak side, and I'm (the linebacker) responsible for him. And so, there are these conflicts that take place – run or pass, run or pass, run or pass – and our eyes have to be real good.
"I think that's a starting point, relative to what you're seeing. And then there's a premium on any indicators that you might be able to pick up that might to tell you 'bird (or) rabbit,' like we used to say, 'bird' being pass, 'rabbit' being run. If you can get some of those indicators – maybe the depth of the back, maybe the play-fake was decent but the quarterback came out a little skinnier – all of those things factor into defending a good boot, or naked, or not.
"It's the essence of, we're going to run the ball, we're going to drop back and throw the ball, and then the last thing we're going to do is act like we're going to run it with a play-action fake, and throw it. There are some play-action protections that are easy to key and diagnose and I can still get to my zone, I can still get to my man. And then there are other play actions that look and feel and taste and smell a lot more like a run. Those ones are the ones that are a little bit more challenging."