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How can the Patriots defend the Broncos elite wide receiver duo?

The Patriots defensive gameplan against the Broncos starts with the wide receivers.

Any discussion about the best wide receiver duos in the NFL has to start- and probably ends- with the Denver Broncos. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas rank 9th and 10th in the NFL in receiving yards, respectively, and represent the only duo in the NFL with 900+ receiving yards apiece.

“I don’t know if you’ll find a pair of receivers better than them,” Patriots FS Devin McCourty said. “They’re both tough. Obviously they’re a different type of receiver so they create different matchup problems but I don’t think you can pick which one is tougher to cover. I think their abilities and what they do is really what makes them such a dynamic duo together.”

“You can’t pick [which player is better],” McCourty added. “You’ve got a guy who’s huge that is very fast and you’ve got another guy who’s not as big but quick, fast.”

Since 2012, the 6’3, 225 pound Thomas has 6,712 receiving yards and 46 touchdowns. Only Steelers WR Antonio Brown has more receiving yards (6,948) over that time frame. The 5’11, 185 pound Sanders joined the Broncos over the Patriots in 2014 and has 3,497 receiving yards over the past three years, the 6th best mark.

In fact, Thomas and Sanders have combined for 7,345 receiving yards since the start of 2014, which easily represents the most productive duo in the NFL over that time span. The Patriots duo of TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Julian Edelman rank second with 5,295 receiving yards over that time.

In 2015, Thomas and Sanders combined for 37 targets in two games against the Patriots with vastly different results. Sanders collected 11 receptions for 175 yards on 17 targets, while Thomas picked up a measly 3 receptions for 48 yards on 20 targets. TE Owen Daniels was the Broncos 3rd most productive receiver against the Patriots with 81 yards and 2 touchdowns, and RB C.J. Anderson ranked 4th with 58 yards on 7 receptions.

The Patriots asked Logan Ryan to smother Thomas in 2015 with some help from FS Devin McCourty and it worked, while Sanders gave Malcolm Butler fits in the open field. With CB Eric Rowe limited with a hamstring injury, perhaps Ryan will receive an encore performance against Thomas to prove 2015 wasn’t a fluke- but the Patriots will also have to make adjustments to help Butler and his bad hip in coverage of Sanders.

“You’ve got to have some kind of plan for [covering Thomas and Sanders],” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. “You’ve got to figure out how you want to handle it. It’s a lot easier when you only have to worry about one guy, but when you have two guys like that it definitely puts a lot of stress on the defense. You have to take all of those things into consideration- how much you want to give up the rush to cover, how much you want to give up the coverage to rush.”

If the Patriots want to use safety help with Butler against Sanders, then that could leave Ryan exposed against Thomas, or it could remove a player from run defense if the Patriots play cover two with the safeties. Fortunately for New England, they can focus all of their coverage attention on Thomas and Sanders because the Broncos don’t have much depth on offense.

RB Devontae Booker is the worst running back in the NFL, per DVOA, and the Broncos offensive line might be missing their best (and arguably only quality) player C Matt Paradis to injury. RB C.J. Anderson is on the injured reserve with a knee injury.

That’s kind of the extent of the Broncos skill players. TE Virgil Green ranks 4th of the Broncos active players in yards from scrimmage with 211 yards and WR Jordan Norwood ranks 5th with 203 yards, but neither player has caught a pass since week 10. WR Bennie Fowler ranks 6th and more than half of his 140 receiving yards came on a 76-yard touchdown reception against the Chiefs.

For comparison, the Patriots 6th ranked active skill player is Malcolm Mitchell, who has been able to contribute on a weekly basis.

Belichick, for his part, thinks that QB Trevor Siemian has done a good job distributing the football.

“[Siemian’s] thrown the ball well the last four or five weeks,” Belichick said. “He’s been over 300 yards every week. He’s got two great receivers, but a lot of other guys that – [Bennie] Fowler and [Jordan] Norwood – they do a good job of spreading the ball around besides [Emmanuel] Sanders and [Demaryius] Thomas. Those are the two guys that you obviously have to stop but they have other explosive players.”

Over the past five games, Thomas has 391 receiving yards and Sanders has 390; that’s how balanced the Broncos duo can be on offense. But no one else gets the football. Former Patriots TE AJ Derby ranks 3rd for Denver with 12 receptions for 125 receiving yards.

If the Patriots can limit just one of the Thomas-Sanders duo, then the defense should be in great shape. SS Patrick Chung should be able to slow down Derby, and the Patriots 2nd ranked rushing defense should be able to handle Booker or RB Justin Forsett out of the backfield.

If Ryan draws the match-up against Thomas and Butler gets Sanders, then maybe the Patriots don’t need to stop both of them. If Ryan and McCourty and stop Thomas early in the game, and the offense can build up a lead, then the defense will be able to rearrange their resources to double both Thomas and Sanders later in the game.