Thomas: Big frame, big game

Broncos’ wide receiver a thorn in the Steelers’ side and a weapon in Manning’s arsenal

Demaryius Thomas now has two big touchdown receptions against the Pittsburgh Steelers to match his big 6-5, 225-pound frame: the 80-yard touchdown catch in overtime to win a playoff game last year and last weekend’s 71-yard touchdown catch. Enlarge photo

Aaron Ontiveroz/Associated Press

Demaryius Thomas now has two big touchdown receptions against the Pittsburgh Steelers to match his big 6-5, 225-pound frame: the 80-yard touchdown catch in overtime to win a playoff game last year and last weekend’s 71-yard touchdown catch.

ENGLEWOOD – Demaryius Thomas sure has a knack for dashing into history.

Eight months after scoring the longest overtime touchdown in NFL playoff annals, the Denver Broncos’ big receiver burned the Pittsburgh Steelers again by hauling in Peyton Manning’s 400th touchdown toss.

In January, it was an 80-yard grab from Tim Tebow on a crossing pattern that secured Denver’s first playoff win in six seasons. On Sunday night, he hauled in a “smoke screen” designed to beat the blitz and gain about 10 yards; instead he weaved his way for a 71-yard score.

With that, Manning joined Brett Favre and Dan Marino in the exclusive 400-touchdown club.

At 6-5 and 225 pounds, Thomas is the biggest target Manning has had in his 15 seasons as a pro, but it was his speed that took Manning aback.

“We weren’t thinking an 80-yard touchdown. Maybe a 9-yard gain is kind of what I was thinking,” Manning said. “So, it sure was a nice surprise.”

Manning marveled at the blocks Thomas got but noted “Demaryius did a majority of the work and really turned it on with great speed.”

Thomas figured that having his first full training camp in his third pro season would translate into a fast start, and he was right.

He was dogged by a broken foot, sprained ankle, concussion, torn Achilles and fractured finger in his first two seasons after leaving Georgia Tech after his junior season. He missed training camp his rookie year after aggravating a foot injury, and he missed last year’s camp after tearing an Achilles tendon in offseason workouts.

He was coming off yet another surgery, to remove pins in his left pinkie, when Manning signed with the Broncos in March.

So, he got a late start working on his rhythm and rapport with his new quarterback while fellow starting wide receiver Eric Decker quickly became Manning’s workout partner.

Thomas quickly caught up when he was healthy, however.

“Being able to go through (organized team activities), minicamps and all with a new quarterback, it was a big deal,” Thomas said. “I feel like everything just got better and better as we went on. It’s better to get the reps on the field than just sitting in meetings and watching. It was great for me to be healthy this year to get the actual reps instead of the mental reps.”

If Thomas, who had five catches for 110 yards in the opener, can stay healthy, he’ll be a big boost for Denver’s retooled offense.

After missing the first five games last year, Thomas was spectacular down the stretch. In December and January, his 35 catches for 745 yards, four touchdowns and 109.3-yard receiving average were second only to Detroit’s Calvin Johnson – and this, despite playing in an ultra-conservative option offense.

With Tebow around, opponents often left Thomas in single coverage so they could stack the line of scrimmage to stuff the run.

With Manning at quarterback, Thomas is adjusting to crowded coverages.

“It’s a lot of different when Tebow was playing and it was nine (defenders) in the box all the time. All I had to do was beat man” coverage, Thomas said. “Now it’s cover-eight, cover-six, cover-two. ... But I think I’ll have a good year if I can stay healthy.”

Thomas said he’s a better receiver for having a perfectionist like Manning as his QB.

“He’s made me a smarter receiver and taught me how to run routes the way he wanted them, the way to get open,” Thomas said. “Basically, I had to change up some things that I wasn’t doing before. Working with Peyton helped me.”