DENVER – The tale of the tape wouldn’t be kind. Demaryius Thomas, standing 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, towered over the Green Bay Packers secondary Sunday night. Casey Hayward? Damarious Randall? They were overmatched against the Denver Broncos receiver.
Thomas was a one-man offense, an unstoppable force. He was something of a miracle worker, too. The Pro Bowl receiver did what seemed impossible, turning the clock back for quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw 340 passing yards in the Broncos 29-10 win at Sports Authority Field.
Thomas had 168 of those yards – almost exactly half. How dominant were his eight catches on 11 targets? Thomas had more receiving yards than the rest of the Broncos’ wide outs combined. By himself, he also had more than double Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ 77 passing yards.
“Oh, man, he’s a good player,” Hayward said at his locker afterward. “He’s a big guy. Hell of a player. Coming off a bye, we knew they were going to have some wrinkles and things there. Overall, he’s one of the top five receivers, if you want to rank them. No certain ranks – no one through five – but he’s one of the better receivers.”
Hayward, no doubt unlucky, was first to line up across Thomas on Sunday. That’s about all he did. Thomas, consistently wide open, had four catches for 101 yards in the Broncos first four possessions. He beat Hayward deep. He beat Hayward underneath. He beat Hayward even when he was covered.
About the only thing Thomas didn’t do was find the end zone.
“He’s big, fast,” Hayward said. “He can run the route tree, and he’s hard to tackle after the catch. He has one of the greatest quarterbacks throwing to him, and he also has a complementary guy in (Emmanuel) Sanders. When you have those things going for you, it’s going to be hard to stop. You can watch film and see some other people slowing him down, but he’s going to be hard to stop a whole game.”
Big. Fast. Hard to tackle. In another year, those would be attributes handed to the Packers’ own star receiver. On Sunday, Thomas showed the Packers what they’re missing with Jordy Nelson out with a torn ACL this season.
While Thomas dominated, the Packers offense looked like it was in a compressor. They couldn’t stretch the field, couldn’t turn to their “shot” plays, and the Broncos’ ferocious defense knew it. With no threat of a vertical passing game, the Broncos were content to sit on routes. They smothered Packers receivers like a blanket extinguishing a fire.
A “good amount,” Rodgers said, he looked downfield only to find covered receivers. Even when he completed passes, explosive plays were missing. Randall Cobb was the Packers’ leading receiver with six catches, just two fewer than Thomas. He had only 27 yards.
Thomas averaged 21 yards per catch, his longest 47 yards.
“I thought I pressed him pretty good at the line,” Hayward said of the deep pass to Thomas. “I was good down the field – maybe at the 20 – and he got separation, a little bump. But, you know, that’s how it happens playing defensive back and wide receiver. You have to play through some of the bumps and things like that, but sometimes you’re going to get caught on sometimes like that.”
With a shoulder injury knocking top corner Sam Shields out of the game early, the Packers were limited with how they could adjust in the second half. They turned to Randall, a bigger cornerback, to try to handle Thomas’ physicality.
Rollins allowed less separation, but the result was the same.
Perhaps Thomas’ most difficult catch of the night came in the third quarter. The Broncos, their lead only a touchdown, faced a third-and-8 from their own 22-yard line. They needed to swing momentum back in their favor.
Manning threw to Thomas on the right sideline. He was heavily covered, but turned at the last moment. Randall couldn’t react fast enough, and Thomas had a 20-yard catch to extend the drive. The Broncos went on to score a touchdown, pulling away.
“Big, fast, and you’ve got Peyton Manning throwing you the ball,” Randall said. “They just won some one-on-one matchups.”
Randall sat at his locker after the game, still wearing part of his uniform. He looked stunned, eyes wide. “Talk about your pick against Peyton Manning,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix told him, slapping the rookie on his shoulder, trying to cheer him up. Yes, Randall left Denver with a souvenir, intercepting the future hall of fame quarterback in the fourth quarter.
No, it didn’t matter.
The Packers have now allowed 843 passing yards in their past two games. They’ve come against Manning and San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, two of the NFL’s best passers. For a team that fancies itself a Super Bowl contender, its inability to defend top-tier passers is troubling.
“It’s frustrating a little bit,” Hayward said, “but the game before we stopped them from scoring. This week, we didn’t stop them from scoring. If we could’ve stopped them from scoring, it wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. We didn’t stop them from scoring, they had a lot of passing yards, and they played good tonight. We went against one of the top teams in the league.”
They have one of the best receivers in the NFL, too. On Sunday, Thomas was everything the Packers can’t replace without Nelson.