ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos work their way toward Sunday night’s game against the New York Giants, they were informed Wednesday that New York's defense will be without cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Rodgers-Cromartie has been suspended by the Giants, meaning the Broncos will face the league’s 26th-ranked defense without a cornerback who had started its first five games. While coach Vance Joseph has said Rodgers-Cromartie’s status “does not matter’’ in the big picture as the Broncos go about their prep work, Denver has spent plenty of time over the past two weeks trying to kick-start production in the red zone, and in particular how to shake its top two receivers -- Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders -- loose from all of the double coverage the two have faced.
After four games, Thomas does not have a touchdown catch, and while Sanders has two, both came in the Week 2 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
“There’s like two or three plays that if you make and score touchdowns then nobody’s talking about the red zone,’’ quarterback Trevor Siemian said. “It was such a small sample size, it’s easy to talk about it a lot. I don’t think that’s where we’ll be by the end of the year. ... But once those opportunities come up, those handful of plays, you’ve got to get in the end zone.’’
The Giants have limited Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford to 122 yards passing and the Eagles’ Carson Wentz to 176, but every quarterback they’ve faced has cashed in with at least one touchdown pass. The Giants have surrendered 10 touchdown passes overall in their 0-5 start, including three each by the Buccaneers’ Jameis Winston and the Chargers’ Philip Rivers in the Giants’ two most recent games. Rivers is the only one of the five quarterbacks the Giants have faced who has thrown an interception against New York's defense.
Rodgers-Cromartie had been benched -- which reports indicate was at the root of the confrontations with Giants coach Ben McAdoo and others that led to the suspension -- but his absence might still force Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo into situations where he can’t always send help toward both Thomas and Sanders.
It’s not that Siemian hasn’t tried to get the ball to Thomas and Sanders during Denver's 3-1 start; it’s more that defenses have limited the damage to this point. Sanders has been targeted a team-high 34 times, with Thomas just behind at 30; Sanders leads the Broncos with 20 catches, with Thomas second at 18.
Thomas has also averaged 19.1 yards on his seven third-down receptions. But in the past two games, the Broncos have scored a touchdown on just one of their possessions inside their opponent's 20-yard line, and at some point Thomas and Sanders will have to be part of the solution.
“They’re going to get their chances,’’ Siemian said. “... When those guys get their looks, it’s only a matter of time. I know it’s important to those guys to win ... but we’re winning. I’m not worried, those guys are going to get their touches.’’
Bennie Fowler, A.J. Derby and others could help alter opposing defenses' plans if they can make some plays in the middle of the field. Joseph has said the key might be doing what’s needed to get Thomas and Sanders the ball without forcing the issue too much.
“We don’t want to force-feed the ball to those guys,’’ Joseph said. “Obviously going into our prep and our game-plan week, the pass game goes through Thomas and Sanders. That’s not a secret at all.’’
“They’re two of our best players so you want to get them the ball, and usually your best players, for you to win, you’ve got to get it to them a bunch,’’ Siemian said. “The other teams are smart, too, and they understand what we’re trying to do and that’s the back and forth. ...
[But] the other guys stepping up really helps that."