NEW ORLEANS -- Tre'Quan Smith had to improvise a little bit on his 15-yard touchdown catch Sunday.
The rookie receiver said the New Orleans Saints had worked on the play all week in practice, but they expected the Philadelphia Eagles to cover it a certain way. Instead, Smith got pressed at the line of scrimmage by cornerback Cre'von LeBlanc, and Smith had to shed him while cutting his route inside around the 5-yard line.
"I kind of threw him by, and Drew [Brees] put it right there on me, and it was a touchdown," said Smith, who said that Brees tracked him down after the play to give him a message.
"He was like, 'Why do you think I threw you the ball? I trust you,'" Smith said. "And [being] a rookie, that just made me so happy inside."
To be honest, it wasn't exactly clear how much the Saints did trust their third-round draft pick from Central Florida in recent weeks before he busted loose on Sunday with 10 catches on 13 targets for 157 yards and the TD.
The Saints signed veteran receivers Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall in back-to-back weeks. But even without those guys playing a snap yet (Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in his second practice, and Marshall was a healthy inactive on Sunday), Smith was still targeted zero times in last week's 51-14 blowout win at Cincinnati despite playing 50 snaps.
And Smith had a total of just 12 catches for 214 yards and three touchdowns on the entire season heading into Sunday's game against Philadelphia. His previous career highs were three catches and six targets.
But then the Eagles decided to spend the whole afternoon double-teaming Saints receiver Michael Thomas. And the Saints made them pay for it by proving just how much trust and confidence they do have in Smith during a 48-7 rout over the reigning Super Bowl champions and their injury-riddled secondary.
"It's just how the defense wants to play everybody each week. And this week, they covered up Mike. So it was my time to shine," said Smith, who admitted he didn't expect to play such a big role.
"Coming in, I expected to catch one or two balls, but 10 catches? No, I didn't expect that. But as the game goes on, you gotta do what you gotta do."
Saints coach Sean Payton seemed equally surprised. He said he watched every game the Eagles have played over the past two years, including their playoff wins last season -- and he never saw them play as much man coverage as they did on Sunday to try (in vain) to stop Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara.
"Obviously, this was a huge night for him," Brees said. "I think, especially early on, it became evident that Philly really wanted to take away Michael Thomas to the point where it was just two guys running around the field with him everywhere. The same with Alvin for the most part.
"So that was opportunities for some of these other guys to get touches and matchups. And listen, they all made the most of it."
Indeed, while Thomas still did plenty of damage with four catches for 92 yards and a touchdown, second-year receiver Austin Carr also contributed with his first career TD catch. Undrafted rookie receiver Keith Kirkwood had three catches for 33 yards in the first quarter. And first-year tight end Dan Arnold had two catches for 25 yards, in addition to other contributors.
But Smith's performance was by far the most noteworthy because Saints (and fantasy football) observers have been speculating for months that he had this kind of potential – especially after he caught three passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns in his first "breakout" performance in Week 5.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder went surprisingly quiet after that – even though veterans Ted Ginn Jr. and Cameron Meredith were placed on injured reserve over the past month, making Smith a full-time starter.
"You know, you gotta be a competitor … you want to make plays," Smith said of his quiet production in recent weeks. "But at the same time, I'm the kind of guy, that's OK with me. If we won the game, I'm satisfied."
Smith, who flashed his big-play potential repeatedly throughout training camp and the preseason, has primarily taken over Ginn's role as an outside receiver and frequent deep-route runner.
Smith said one of the things coaches had been harping on with him was getting a faster start in the first 5 yards of his routes.
"Sean tells me that all the time and [receivers coach Curtis Johnson] tells me that all the time," Smith said. "I kinda was getting frustrated because they're seeing something I'm not seeing. I feel like I'm coming off the ball hard, and they're seeing something different. So in my mind, I'm like, 'I feel like I'm doing it right, why are they saying I'm doing it wrong?' But it's just something I gotta keep working on so I can be a pro at it."
Smith will likely remain a big part of New Orleans' offense even when Marshall starts being activated on game days. Most likely, Marshall will start off by being eased into a limited role in the red zone and on third downs.
But Smith admitted that the Bryant and Marshall signings provided a little extra motivation for him.
"It has to because ... you gotta know your job is at risk. Because if you mess up, you got a veteran right there trying to take your job," Smith said. "But I know if I do what I gotta do week in and week out, I'm at a good place."
Smith's production could remain a bit inconsistent, depending on how defenses attack the Saints. But Thomas and Kamara will always draw the most attention -- opening things up for guys such as Smith. And a performance like the one Sunday has to serve as a confidence booster.