GLENDALE, Ariz. — Emmanuel Sanders said he was done with acrobatics. No more flips into the end zone. After the one he did to open the season against Seattle, the nine-year veteran said he would be strictly earth-bound when crossing the goal line going forward.
But when he not only caught a touchdown but also threw one Thursday night in the Broncos’ 45-10 victory over the Cardinals, he went back on his word — and could you blame him?
“I know, man,” Sanders said after the game, his slight regret belied by his big grin. “I caught it and I was like, ‘Screw it.’ I was like, ‘Screw it.’ I’m gonna be having fun out here, right? That’s what it’s about. Having fun and playing football, that's how you win games. To catch that pass ... I didn’t have to do anything but just run straight. That’s probably one of the easiest touchdown passes I’ve caught in terms of deep balls, so he made it easy for me.”
And that wasn’t even the play he enjoyed most.
No, his favorite was the one that caught just about everyone by surprise — when he took a pitch on a jet sweep and stopped behind the line of scrimmage, uncorking a 28-yard bomb to the end zone that was reeled in by a diving Courtland Sutton.
It was a play the Broncos had been hoping to run for weeks, Head Coach Vance Joseph said after the game. They just needed to build up the confidence that they could get opponents to bite on the sweep.
That ability came with patience, as the Broncos ran the jet sweep with great success three times, including preseason. The first time they used it, Sanders ran it in from 27 yards out in Washington. The second time, in Week 3 against Baltimore, went for 35 yards and a touchdown. Sanders gained 18 yards on the third attempt, against the Chiefs.
“That play’s been on our game-plan sheet for about three weeks, and the timing was perfect by [Offensive Coordinator] Billy [Musgrave] to call it in the high red zone,” Joseph said. “ … [Sanders] scored [two] times this year on jet sweeps, so that play had a lot of suction to it. The safety and the corner bit, and obviously 14 [Sutton] is in the corner wide open. Great catch by him. Obviously Emmanuel’s moving with the ball, so the throw was on line, but it was a great catch.”
So, yeah, with all that planning and the fun of tricking your opponent and catching them off guard, of course that was Sanders’ favorite play of the day.
“I mean, how often do you get to throw a touchdown pass?” Sanders said before joking with the media. “Like I said just a little while ago, I’ve got to ice my arm now. My arm’s a little sore. So I’m gonna go and ice it.”
Dual-threat players who can throw and catch touchdowns have been rare in Broncos history. In fact, Sanders became the first Bronco to do both in a single game since John Elway, who caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from running back Steve Sewell on Sept. 7, 1986, against the Raiders and threw for two more.
“I had to go an apologize to John,” Sanders joked. “But it feels good. It feels good. That pass right there, that’s called ‘SMU Pass Right.’ I went to SMU. Courtland went to SMU. What a great call by Bill Musgrave. We were able to execute and score a touchdown, so it felt good.”
Photos from Broncos photographers from the Broncos' Week 7 game against the Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on "Thursday Night Football."
Perhaps more than that — and in part because of that — what also felt good was that the offense was able to regain its confidence and its scoring potential Thursday night. The group had four three-and-outs, but it also put together five scoring drives, including three that gained at least 60 yards and four that ended in touchdowns. Only one drive that got into the red zone stalled.
But that’s not enough for the members of the offense.
“I think the main thing was taking care of the ball and trying not to turn it over, running the ball like we’ve been able to run it all season, 4 to 5 yards a carry,” Demaryius Thomas said. “Converting what we can on third downs, not getting the negative plays. For the most part, we kind of did that. There were some times where we went three and out that we’ve got to work on, because as we know, they’re not the best team we’ve played, but you’ve got to respect everybody every week. One week you might not have a team that comes out and scores 10 points. So, those three-and-outs that we had, we’ve got to work on those, still, to be a better offense. We can’t play to our opponents’ level. Our defense put up 14 points today.”
Even the explosive plays may not be the complete salve in which everyone can find comfort. They’re great to have, but the drives in between those plays need to become more consistent for this performance to be something upon which the Broncos can build.
“We’ve got to be better,” Thomas said. “We’re going to watch film and see what we can do better. I know we had a lot of big plays where we scored quick. I know that helped us out big time. I know for sure, I think it was two plays, we only had one play and a drive of two plays — a big play to Courtland and a big play to E. And that’s 14 points in just two plays. As an offense we still had probably 67 that we’ve got to watch and see what we can do to make this better as an offense and all around.”
Still, there is a moment of elation following Thursday’s breakout performance that will hang in the air for a little while. But to make it truly last, the Broncos and their offense will have to show they can replicate it and add greater consistency going forward.
“Like Coach Joseph says, ‘In this league, when you lose, you feel like you’re never gonna win again, and when you win, you feel like you’re never gonna lose again,’” Sanders said. “It’s one of those situations that, yeah, we can build off of this.”