Allen Park — When Lions cornerbacks Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis line up against the Denver Broncos receivers on Sunday night, it’ll be almost like practice for them.
Facing Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, they’ll have their hands full with one of the most challenging receiving tandems they’ve faced this season.
At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Thomas is a big receiver, similar to the build of Calvin Johnson and the speedy Sanders (5-11) can be tough to handle on the outside or inside.
“They’re very talented, very good guys — all of them are Pro Bowl-caliber receivers. You can compare them to (Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb) — two dominant guys that can play outside and one can play slot),” Slay said. “But I get the biggest challenge every day in practice, going against Calvin and Golden Tate every day, so it won’t be anything new.
“They’re similar because you have one big, dominant guy another dominant guy — he’s just shorter.”
Like the Lions’ combo, Thomas and Sanders each had more than 1,000 yards receiving last year and Thomas dominated, with 111 catches for 1,619 yards and 11 touchdowns in his fifth season. It was similar to Johnson’s fifth year, when he had 96 receptions for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2011.
Both Thomas and Johnson were first-round picks from Georgia Tech, with Johnson coming out in 2007 and Thomas 2010.
Though Thomas hasn’t gotten off to a somewhat slow start (15 catches, 176 yards, no touchdowns) in the first two games, Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin knows how much of a threat Thomas can be.
“Whenever he gets the ball. He can beat you deep, he can beat you on the screen because he’s so big and strong,” Austin said. “He can beat you by running dig routes, so he’s really a well-rounded receiver, but he’s one of the elite receivers in the league.”
Sanders is coming off his best season, with 101 catches for 1,404 yards and 9 touchdowns in his first year with the Broncos, after coming from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He was the key offensive weapon in last week’s come-from-behind win over the Kansas City Chiefs, scoring two touchdowns.
“He’s an elusive guy who can get away from you as well. He’s a good route-runner,” Mathis said. “He catches the ball well and you don’t see him drop too many balls.”
For quarterback Peyton Manning, there was no issue with having two top receivers, but Sanders has the versatility to play inside and outside and is flourishing with Manning in the first season under coach Gary Kubiak.
“Coach Kubiak and (offensive coordinator Rick) Dennison really want to try to get Emmanuel the ball in different ways. You’ve seen we’ve moved him around a decent amount and we all know what he can do once he gets the ball in his hands,” Manning said. “The more touches that he can get, the better chance you have of something good happening.”
Sanders missed all of training camp and Thomas all of OTAs, so they’ve been slower to mesh this year, as Sanders has 16 catches for 152 yards and two touchdowns, but the Broncos have struggled to run the ball effectively — like the Lions — which has put more pressure on Manning in the passing game.
“We’re just trying to get on the same page. I know that a lot of people are hitting the panic button right now,” Sanders said. “We’re just going to keep working every single day and keep trying to complete these deep balls, so that when the game comes, it happens.”
While the Lions’ pass defense has struggled — ranking 24th in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed — the Broncos’ passing game, with Manning at the helm, will be another challenge. Manning has won all three games he’s started (with the Indianapolis Colts) against the Lions, all by double digits.
Sanders has the ability to have the same impact on underneath routes as the Chargers’ Keenan Allen did in the Lions’ opening loss, tying a franchise record with 15 catches.
The Lions said they want to make the Broncos one-dimensional on offense, but if it’s the pass, it could be a rough day, given the talent that they’ve seen from Thomas and Sanders.
“(Thomas) is their Calvin Johnson. He can run every route, has the speed get over the top, quickness to run a slant and take it,” Lions safety James Ihedigbo said. “Emmanuel Sanders has shown that same ability on tape and he’s an explosive player.”