The run game of the Carolina Panthers and the impressive defenses on both contenders has dominated the Super Bowl 50 chatter this week. That is fair to a degree, but two Pro-Bowl players have gone largely unnoticed this week and mostly criticized through rather impressive seasons, statistically speaking. Sunday, in front of millions of Americans, both players have the ability to break the game wide open for the Broncos and chances are at least one of them will.
Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas have proven themselves to be top-notch NFL receivers and have both, once again, eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in the regular season. Yet with Peyton Manning and his aging arm, they have been largely counted out this week and many believe will be neutralized by the formidable Panthers secondary. The two playmakers disagree.
“Most teams have a number one receiver, a two receiver, a three receiver, whatever. We have two number one receivers in my opinion,” wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said Thursday. “If DT doesn’t take over a game, Emmanuel can. If Emmanuel doesn’t take over a game DT can. They feed off each other in that regard.”
Sanders and Thomas became teammates in the offseason of 2014 and immediately gained a rapport with each other and Peyton Manning. Sanders experienced immediate success unlike he found in his first four seasons in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both Sanders and Thomas caught over 100 passes for over 1,400 receiving yards in their first season together. This year, both of their catches and receiving yards are just slightly down but have nonetheless been impressive.
Sanders and Thomas also have been to previous Super Bowls and Thomas even holds a Super Bowl record for receptions in the big game. He believes he will have similar success, but needs to do the small things in order to come out with a win this time.
“I know what it takes to be successful in the game, but not on the winning side; we’re going to do whatever we’ve got to do to get that win and I think the main focus is taking care of the ball.” Thomas said Wednesday.
Despite his impressive statistics this season and for several seasons in a row, Thomas has come under fire from pundits and fans alike for “underperforming.” That idea that does not sit well with his teammate.
“You know, he does get a lot of criticism about drops and it’s not fair because everybody talks about his drops but everybody forget he got 1,300 yards this year. Come on man, he’s got 1,300! Leave the man alone,” Sanders said Tuesday. “Last year he got 1,600 and he may have eight drops, but I’ll take that. You ask any organization in the National Football League if they’d take Demaryius Thomas and they’ll say, ‘Yes, bring him over here.’”
Sanders joined Thomas in Denver and Manning acknowledged that he was not sure it would work out, but upon their first practice together was sold Sanders on the new receiver.
“I do believe that you can tell early when you first throw to a receiver when he signs with the team, whether it is in the offseason or at a workout. The first time I threw to Emmanuel was down at Duke,” Manning said Wednesday. “I did have a good early feel for him and connection with him. The way he runs his routes, you can see him. You can tell when he drops his hips and is going to break out. It doesn’t happen with everybody. It is a bad feeling when you throw to a guy that first workout and you go, ‘I cannot tell which way he is going to break.’ As hard as you work it usually doesn’t get a whole lot better. I think some things just work out that way. He is a tremendous competitor.”
Sunday the Broncos will face a tough task. The Panthers have been nothing short of remarkable this season. They finished the regular season with the sixth ranked defense and had a league-leading plus-20 turnover ratio thanks to 39 takeaways on defense. Josh Norman was voted to his first Pro Bowl largely due to his league leading 54.0 passer rating against, according to Pro Football Focus. The Broncos were either unsure or unwilling to divulge how they believe the Panthers will play Thomas and Sanders this week but Manning certainly sees an impressive unit when he dissects their film.
“It’s a very active secondary. They do a lot of different things, play a lot of different coverages, all of them blitz, all of them are part of the blitz packages as well, play man-to-man well, play zone well, you can tell they’re well-coached,” Manning said Tuesday. “You can tell they communicate really well, see them talking out there and all those things are very evident on the game film.”
Sanders and Thomas have been taking turns all season playing the hero. Often, defenses have to try and take one away and hope they can limit big plays, but for the most part, one or both of them has come up with 100-plus yard games on their way to a win.
“Yeah, some games, I think that a lot of teams put their No. 1 corner on me and then they put the number two on Demaryius and then give that number two help over the top, which is smart. Sometimes I end up beating the number one cornerback. I’m just really trying to do my job,” Sander said Tuesday. “Yesterday I was answering a lot of questions about Norm [Norman] and what I’m going to do versus him and this and that. Norman is a great corner. Me and Demaryius have been facing great corners all year, even if you think about the Kansas City cornerbacks. It’s going to be a great matchup for sure.”
Both sides of Super Bowl 50’s matchup grew weary of the media attention as the week dragged on and both seem prepared to prove themselves once and for all in the historic event.
“This is definitely draining. It really is,” Norman said Thursday. “I’m just tired of sitting back and waiting, and talking every day and talking about the things that we’re gonna do – instead of going out there and doing them because I’m more so about action than anything else.”
The Broncos success this season, and any they hope to achieve Sunday, certainly lies with a balanced attack of near equal running plays and passes. But big plays downfield may be the difference between winning and losing. Manning was seen at practice Thursday completing deep throws to both receivers, leading head coach Gary Kubiak to state that it was the best he has seen Manning throw since the beginning of the season. That bodes well for the Broncos, regardless of whose hands the ball lands in.
“That’s Batman, I’m Robin,” Sanders said of he and Thomas. “I’ve said that several times being in Denver is definitely an honor to work with him and hopefully we can win a championship. I tell him if we win a championship he’s never going to be able to not be around me. I’m going to be there forever so we’re just trying to keep it how it is.”
The Broncos will need both to spread the Panthers defense thin and exploit any little weakness they find. The Panthers will surely mix things up and try to disguise their approach, leaving opportunities for both pieces of the dynamic duo. The two players, receiving little in the way of respect this week, are ready to leave no doubt of their abilities when they finally reach the field Sunday.
“I’m just ready to go. I know everybody else is ready to go too. I’m tired of talking and ready to play ball,” Sanders said emphatically Friday.
The Broncos enter Sunday underdogs and their high-flying wide receivers are somehow flying under the radar. They are ready and the Super Bowl will reveal which side lets their play talk for them when history is made.