When Chiefs rookie De’Anthony Thomas steps on the field these days, he can’t help noticing how teams are playing him.
Only seven games into his professional football career, Thomas can see that he’s not just some guy, he’s someone other teams are forced to keep track of.
“I feel like a lot of teams are alert to where I am on the field,” Thomas said. “All the actions (I run) … it’s just great to get those guys on their toes … running with me, talking, stuff like that. I feel like that’s great for our offense.”
He’s not the only one who feels that way. Prior to his team’s 24-20 win over the Chiefs on Thursday, Oakland Raiders coach Tony Sparano raved about Thomas’ home-run ability on offense, and the irritation it causes opponents.
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“It’s a lot easier to track a great player when he’s on the field all the time,” Sparano said. “But when all of a sudden these players start to get in and out of the football game a little bit ... it makes it a little bit hard. Some people call them specialty players, but this guy is dynamic.”
Since Thomas’ return from a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the first four games of the season, Chiefs coach Andy Reid has quietly unleashed him in a multitude of ways. It is reminiscent of the way Thomas was used in college at Oregon (where he scored 45 touchdowns in three years) and the way Reid used another fan favorite last season.
“We’re kind of using De’Anthony the same way we did Dexter (McCluster),” Reid said. “Both of them are capable of doing the same type of things.”
McCluster had his best year as a pro last year under Reid, catching 53 passes for 511 yards and making the Pro Bowl as a punt returner. However, Thomas has been a more productive runner — he’s averaging 10.3 yards in eight carries — than McCluster, who averaged 0.6 yards the same number of carries, was last year.
“He’s a factor,” Reid said. “He’s got great speed and quickness. If you can get him the ball, however you get him the ball, he normally, in space is going to make some good things happen.”
One of the ways Reid likes to get Thomas in space is to have him line up outside, then have him motion inside for a jet sweep. Though Thomas has only carried the ball like this four times this season, he’s gained 50 yards — an average of 12.5 yards per carry.
“It’s funny because he does the jet sweep where he runs across the field, and you look at it on film and he’s probably on the screen for that long,” tackle Donald Stephenson said, snapping his fingers. “When we give him the ball, the d-end doesn’t even know he’s crossed his face. It’s crazy to watch.”
Even more impressive is the Chiefs’ overall success on these types of running plays. When Thomas doesn’t carry the ball, the Chiefs’ running backs have rushed approximately seven times for 49 yards, an average of 7 yards per carry.
Stephenson said the threat of Thomas carrying the ball sometimes creates some indecision up front among defenders, which is all the linemen need.
“It catches their eyes, it’s going to create a reaction out of them,” Stephenson said. “It helps us stay on our angles and holds them on the backside of the play just long enough so we can make our blocks.”
In a similar way, the Chiefs also like to use Thomas on an end-around action in which he motions from the outside. From there, quarterback Alex Smith can either give the ball to the lead running back or hand it to Thomas, will also run swing routes off such actions on occasion.
“That’s kind of the way our league is moving right now,” Sparano said. “You get these outstanding players that I always call, ‘splash water.’ You fly them out of there, they splash enough water, you say, ‘could they have the ball?’ Well, yeah they could.
“And even if they don’t, you better honor it because if not, they’re going to circle your defense and that’s going to be a problem. So you always have to respect that and it slows down people inside, and when it slows them down, it gives those linemen a chance to crawl up on them. And as soon as that happens and you get a little crease, now you’ve got a back like (Jamaal) Charles coming at you. That presents a problem.”
Reid also likes to use Thomas in the passing game, even though McCluster, who caught 53 passes for 511 yards last season, made more of an impact in that area than Thomas has, at least on the surface.
Thomas, a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft, has caught 10 passes for 65 yards this season, and has been used as a receiver out of the backfield and on short routes over the middle (primarily, but not always, drag routes).
Occasionally, Reid will even have him run a deep route to clear out space and attack the area he’s vacated.
But Thomas’ biggest contribution as a pass receiver comes via swing passes and screens, of which he’s racked up approximately 62 yards and a touchdown on eight touches.
Thomas, specifically, has played a significant role in Reid’s recent reliance on college-style packaged plays, which give quarterbacks a run-pass option, and can often be found running screens while Smith surveys the defense and decides whether or not to hand the ball off.
Smith has opted to hand the ball off to an overwhelming degree this season — it’s his choice, given the look the defensive is giving him — but it’s hard to argue with the results.
Against the Raiders, the Chiefs leaned on this specific type of packaged play heavily — at least 18 times — and rushed for approximately 102 yards on 15 carries while Thomas caught two passes for 15 yards on resulting screens.
Thing is, Reid said there’s still more that Thomas can do. He’s figured more and more into the gameplan every week, and logged a career-high 33 snaps against the Raiders.
Some of that might have to do with the injuries at the position — Donnie Avery has missed the last seven games, Junior Hemingway suffered a concussion against the Raiders and A.J. Jenkins just went on injured reserve — but Reid said increasing Thomas’ playing time has long been part of the plan.
“Every week we give him a little bit more,” Reid said. “You just keep adding into the package and he’s able to handle it and do well, but you want to keep positive stuff for him.”
For his part, Thomas said he has a full comprehension of the plays Reid has asked him to run.
“I know it all now,” Thomas said.
However, he knows he still has room for improvement. Special teams, not offense, was supposed to be the biggest way he contributed to this year’s team, but against Oakland, he was pulled off punt-return duty after he made an ill-advised decision to field a punt and lost 12 yards.
Thomas did not want to elaborate on that decision, nor did he say how he felt about being pulled on punt returns, other than to say he’s still growing as a player.
“It’s a learning experience for me,” Thomas said.
Special teams struggles aside, however, Thomas, is pleased with the progress he’s made on offense, and is excited to see how Reid continues to use him going forward.
“It makes me feel good,” Thomas said. “Being a rookie, being my first year, me adapting to the game, it’s going well.”