Saints' Drew Brees builds connection with Emmanuel Sanders, Tre'Quan Smith

Tre'Quan Smith caught his second touchdown pass in a span of less than three minutes Sunday, giving the New Orleans Saints an unthinkable 28-14 lead before halftime, when teammate Michael Thomas chimed in on Twitter.

"Ask Trequan what I texted him before the game. He doing exactly that!"

“Right before the game, Mike texted me 'Ball out bro,' and I sent him the 100 emoji,” Smith said with a big smile after perhaps the most clutch performance of his three-year career.

Smith finished with four catches for 54 yards, the two TDs and a critical third-and-5 conversion in the final minutes as the Saints rallied from an early 14-0 deficit and hung on for a desperately needed 35-29 win over the Detroit Lions.

Thomas should be back from an ankle injury soon, whether it be Monday night against the Los Angeles Chargers in the Superdome or after the Week 6 bye. And that will be a much-needed boon for the Saints (2-2), considering they nearly went 0-3 without him.

However, there was at least one silver lining during his absence.

With Thomas out, Drew Brees seemed to develop more and more of a connection with Smith and veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders during each passing week -- making up for all of the time they missed out on during this abbreviated offseason.

“It was frustrating because we didn’t have the time like OTAs to get the timing down with Drew, and that’s a big thing. With Drew, you know, it’s timing and anticipation,” Smith said.

Likewise, Sanders -- who joined the Saints in March -- openly admitted one week into this season that his comfort level was still “probably about an 85” in his new offense because of the vast variety of personnel groupings and formations the Saints use.

But four weeks into the season now, Sanders said, “I think I’m all the way there” after catching six passes for 93 yards Sunday.

“It was never the plays, it was just all the little details,” Sanders said. “So I think I'm just starting to get comfortable with the city of New Orleans and everything in general. So it feels good to go out and get a win today and catch a few passes and get a couple targets. So I'm happy, but at the same time looking forward to stacking another win.”

Once Thomas and injured Saints tight end Jared Cook return, there might not be enough targets to go around for Sanders or Smith to have consistent fantasy value.

But their emergence is a huge development in real-life terms for a Saints offense that sputtered throughout September while Brees was being scrutinized for his failure to get the ball downfield.

Even when Thomas was healthy in Week 1, the three receivers combined for just seven catches and 36 yards. Heading into Week 4, New Orleans had the fewest yards gained by wide receivers in the NFL at 283.

“Both of those guys played outstanding, and really the entire cast,” Brees said after Sunday’s win. “We knew that the last two weeks we have not had the level of execution, we haven't had the tempo and the rhythm that we know that we can have.”

The bond between Brees and Sanders really started to develop in last week’s 37-30 loss to the Green Bay Packers. They connected on a 10-yard TD pass on third-and-2 just before halftime, then three more passes for 46 yards in the second half.

But after that game, Brees said, "I still think we can do a better job of getting the ball in his hands" and "I think we’re just scratching the surface."

Sure enough, they were in sync Sunday on a beautiful back-shoulder pass for 18 yards on the Saints’ first touchdown drive in the first quarter. Then a 19-yarder and a 25-yarder on back-to-back TD drives in the second quarter. Then three catches for 31 yards on the opening TD drive in the third quarter.

As for Smith, he has flashed his potential several times since being drafted in the third round out of Central Florida in 2018, including two 100-yard games as a rookie and five TD catches in each of his first two seasons.

But the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder has yet to show enough consistency -- in large part because of a Week 2 ankle injury in 2019 that nagged him for the rest of the season, and also because the Saints have moved him around to various receiver positions when needed.

But Smith looked about as confident as ever Sunday, making some really tough contested catches on his first TD (a 2-yarder) and the 19-yarder that helped New Orleans chew up clock with 3:25 remaining in the fourth quarter.

“I felt like there’s a lot of weight on my shoulders to help fill in for Mike. But now I got really comfortable with it and feel that I really know the offense now; knowing Mike’s position, which I never played before,” Smith said. “So I definitely grew up the last couple games.

“And it just shows you when we’re all on the same page, look what our offense can do.”