Alastair Grant/Associated Press file photo
Alastair Grant/Associated Press file photo
ENGLEWOOD – Demaryius Thomas is the biggest wide receiver Peyton Manning ever has played with, and he’s coming up bigger and bigger by the week.
“Every time I play with him, I feel like we improve,” Manning said.
After injuries limited him to seven starts in his first two seasons in Denver, Thomas has had a breakout season with Manning delivering sharp passes and pointers alike.
With 74 catches for 1,197 yards and eight touchdowns, the 6-5, 225-pound wide receiver is a big reason the Broncos (10-3) haven’t lost in more than two months and are making a charge for one of the two AFC playoff byes.
Last week, Thomas caught two head-turning touchdown passes that even had Manning amazed at the chemistry these two have formed in just 13 games together.
On one, Manning and Thomas recognized a mismatch and changed the play on the fly, and Thomas reached high between a Tampa Bay safety and linebacker in tight coverage to snare the touchdown throw. On the other score, Thomas curled around a cornerback in the end zone, and just as he turned, the pass from Manning was in the crick of his right elbow.
“I was like, ‘Man, how did you get that through there?’” Thomas said. “He was on me like a blanket.”
It was an example of the rapport Thomas and Manning quickly have developed in their short time together.
“An old coach would call that an anticipatory throw,” Manning said.
“I threw that ball super early, and Demaryius kind of came right around the DB and made a heck of a catch. That was really a special play.”
It reinforced everything everybody told Thomas when Manning signed with the Broncos back in March: Get open, and he’ll get you the ball where no one else can touch it.
“That was an amazing throw. I never saw anything like that in my life,” Thomas said. “This guy just does things every week that it’s like, gosh, this guy amazes me.”
That’s precisely what so many are now saying about Thomas, who is tied with Detroit’s Calvin “Megatron” Johnson with 17 receptions of 25 or more yards and ranks second to Carolina’s Steve Smith with 16.2 yards per catch among receivers with at least 60 receptions.
Thomas became a household name last year despite playing in Tim Tebow’s ultra-conservative option offense that didn’t allow receivers to really strut their stuff. His 109.3-yard receiving average in December and January was bested only by Johnson.
Then came that first play of overtime against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, when Thomas hauled in a high play-action pass on a crossing pattern, stiff-armed Ike Taylor and outraced Ryan Mundy into the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown that gave Denver its first postseason win since 2005.
Eight months after scoring the longest overtime touchdown in NFL playoff history, the big receiver burned the Steelers again by hauling in Manning’s milestone 400th touchdown toss, turning a “smoke screen” pass at the line of scrimmage into a zigzagging 71-yard score.
While others marvel at his size and speed or even his great hands, teammate Brandon Stokley said it’s the big man’s footwork that’s so impressive.
“For a guy that big, it’s unbelievable,” Stokley said.
Against San Diego last month, for instance, the officials ruled Thomas had only gotten one foot inbounds on a full sprint through the left corner of the end zone, but in slow motion replay they saw him drag his right foot ever so slightly as his momentum carried him out of bounds.
“He’s got the total package, and he’s worked extremely hard on the details of things,” Stokley said. “And that’s gotten him a lot better, and I think that’s come from having Peyton here and from working with Peyton.”
It also helped to have a full training camp.
Thomas was dogged by a broken foot, sprained ankle, concussion, torn Achilles and fractured finger in his first two seasons after leaving Georgia Tech following his junior season. He missed training camp his rookie year after aggravating a foot injury, and he missed camp last year 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 the spring. So, he got a late start working with his new quarterback, while fellow starting wide receiver Eric Decker became Manning’s shadow and workout partner.
Thomas quickly caught up, though.