Demaryius Thomas' talent was wasting away during his first two seasons
in Denver. The NFL's 31st ranked passing offense, led by none other than Tim
Tebow, just wasn't allowing Thomas' to capture the full potential expected when
the Broncos drafted him 25th overall in 2010.
The installation of an elite-level quarterback in Peyton Manning and
what has become the league's eighth-rated passing attack has seemingly changed
all that for Thomas and the Broncos, though.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots know that this year's Broncos team may
contain some of the same pieces as last, but the offense entering Gillette
Stadium on Sunday isn't anything similar to the one New England outscored 86-38
in two games a season ago. And Belichick would be the first to acknowledge that
"It's, I'd say, 95 percent different," Belichick said in
discussing the Broncos offensive transition. "Some of the same players,
some of the same matchups, but those players are doing different things."
With Manning under center, any offense immediately becomes a threat.
But throw in some big, physical and talented receivers, like Thomas, and
suddenly you're talking about an entirely different beast.
Thomas, who had accrued just three 100-yard receiving games (including
one in the playoffs) since entering the NFL, already has two in 2012. His
combination of size and speed is finally being utilized properly in the
new-look Broncos offense, and it's showing as his chemistry with Manning
continues to rapidly develop. Thomas has already hauled in 21 passes for 325
yards and two touchdowns, numbers that are already near career highs.
But while Thomas continues to see success with Manning at the helm, he's
not the only Denver receiver excelling in the new system.
Eric Decker, who had a breakout season with 44 catches and eight
touchdowns in 2011, has been seeing a lot more attention this season and he's
capitalizing on the opportunities. Decker already has 24 catches for 322 yards,
better than half his production from 2011 in just four games, and his 6-foot-3
frame is being targeted even more often inside the red zone.
Add ex-Colts Brandon Stokley (13 grabs and a touchdown) and tight end
Jacob Tamme (15 catches and a touchdown) into the mix, and suddenly you're
talking about a passing attack worthy of some concern from opposing defenses.
"They've been very productive and certainly Peyton looks for them
in critical situations," Belichick said of the pair of ex-Colts.
"Stokley gets open a lot in the slot and Tamme does a good job on
everything, especially play-action passes going down the seam. Those guys do a
good job, they have good chemistry."
While Tamme and Stokley have a longer history and likely better
rapport with Manning, it's Thomas and Decker who could cause the most problems
for New England this weekend.
Thomas and Decker, both 6-foot-3 and nearly 230 pounds, possess the
elite size that should cause fits for an already struggling New England
Decker didn't do much against the Patriots in either meeting last
year, hauling in just one catch for 22 yards, but then again that was with Tim
Tebow slinging it from behind center. This time around, though, the likes of
Kyle Arrington and Sterling Moore, both listed at 5-foot-10, could find it
tough to deal with his size when receiving more accurately thrown balls from
As for Thomas, he thrashed the Patriots secondary in both meetings
last season to the tune of a combined 10 catches and 209 yards. A much-improved
Devin McCourty on the outside should help limit that production this time
But McCourty understands how dangerous these receivers can be with
Manning throwing to them, and that the Patriots secondary will have their work
cut out for them against such top-end talent.
"Playing against those guys last year two times, we knew they had
good receivers," McCourty said. "Decker and Thomas, they're big,
physical guys. We're going to have to try and challenge them when they go down
the field and when they catch underneath passes getting them on the ground is
going to be tough."
The Patriots definitely have a tall order — both
literally and figuratively — at hand with these Broncos receivers on Sunday.
And for a pass defense currently ranked 25th in the NFL, it will be no easy
feat to slow them down.