ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos will miss Emmanuel Sanders.
They’ll miss his speed. They’ll miss his sure hands. They’ll miss his ability to make sideline catches.
The big plays, the catches in traffic, the touchdown grabs — they’ll miss it all as they finish the 2018 season.
But after Sanders suffered an Achilles injury during Wednesday’s practice, the Broncos will lose more than just what shows up in a box score.
Just go back and re-watch Phillip Lindsay’s 65-yard touchdown run on Sunday. Watch it closely. You may be able to see Sanders throwing a key block.
Then check out Courtland Sutton’s 30-yard touchdown catch. Sanders helped make that happen, too.
“He got awarded some game balls for games where I think he may have had four or six catches,” quarterback Case Keenum said. “Even last week, some huge blocks that he’s been able to put down to get guys down the field — especially [for] Phillip on that run. I think he had a great block on that one. As far as routes, sometimes you run routes to get open and sometimes you run routes to get other guys open. The touchdown pass, the route may have been designed this past week for him, but just the way they covered him up allowed Courtland to be one-on-one on the outside. Just different things like that that you can’t really put a statistic on.”
The Broncos don’t just have to replace a big-play receiver. They have to replace the threat of one.
Of course, Keenum said Wednesday he doesn’t believe a team really replaces injured players.
How could you with a player like Sanders?
He leads the team in receptions (by 43 catches), targets (by 39), yards (by 310), first-down receptions (by 15) and in touchdowns (by one).
The Broncos must fill the void in other ways.
Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick, River Cracraft and Andre Holmes will be part of that solution as the Broncos approach a Week 14 game against the 49ers.
Sutton assumed a starting role after the Broncos traded Demaryius Thomas ahead of Week 9, and DaeSean Hamilton will now get his own crack at the starting lineup.
“I’ve said it before, and I know it’s cliché, [but] I’m a product of somebody getting a chance when somebody gets injured,” Keenum said. “It could be a great start for somebody’s career, one of these young receivers who we trust. They’ve been working a long time, Court, DaeSean, Tim Patrick, all of those guys. What a great opportunity for those guys, depending on what’s at stake here.”
The Broncos could also turn to running backs Phillip Lindsay, Devontae Booker, Royce Freeman or tight end Matt LaCosse to provide an offensive jolt.
It’s no stretch, though, to suggest that Sutton and Hamilton may be impacted most.
Hamilton said Wednesday that he’s ready for the responsibility.
“I know, me personally, I’ve been looking forward to this all season,” Hamilton said. “Just getting an opportunity — not ‘E’ going down, nothing like that, never anything like that — but I’ve been looking forward to this all season. Really, it has been something that I kind of just been itching at. And finally, [now] that it’s here, this is just an opportunity that I know I’m not going to let go.”
Sutton, meanwhile, said he “love[s] it” that he’ll face added attention from defenses.
After Sutton’s career game on Sunday — four catches, 85 yards, one touchdown — it may be time for added touches.
“He’s grown in so many ways,” Keenum said. “I think he’s doing a good job of building his rotary, his craft. I think he’s doing a good job of not just being a one-trick pony. I think he’s doing a good job of being able to run all sorts of different routes. When you’re dangerous like that, you’re tough to cover.”
When you add all those elements together — Sutton’s improvement, Hamilton’s motivation, Patrick’s clutch catches, Lindsay’s explosiveness — perhaps you find a path forward for the Broncos’ offense.
And believe this: The Broncos’ offense must find a way forward.
As Head Coach Vance Joseph said Wednesday, there are a lot of teams dealing with injuries in Week 14.
“We can’t cry about it,” Joseph said. “We have to move on and go play a football game on Sunday.”
When they do, they’ll get their first taste of life without Sanders.
They’ll certainly miss him. There's a way they can be successful anyway.