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Panthers will try to slow Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders with rookie CBs

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Denver Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian stares across the line of scrimmage Thursday night at the Carolina Panthers' defense, he will see the swirling, physical front seven that repeatedly vexed quarterbacks last season.

And Siemian, as well as the Broncos' play-callers, will also see a secondary expected to play two rookie cornerbacks. That's a matchup worth watching, as Siemian will be making his first NFL start as will Panthers cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley.

Broncos coach Gary Kubiak isn't taking special note of the rookies in coverage, saying the entire Panthers defense needs attention.

"They're going to play their defense," Kubiak said. "It's kind of like us we got a rookie quarterback in a lot of ways, you know, but we're going to go run our offense. Their defense one of the top defenses in football last year, that front seven ... is as good as I’ve ever coached against ... We both have got some younger players going out there."

The Broncos will see the same defensive personnel in that front seven, but two of the four starters in the Panthers' secondary could be different than in Super Bowl 50. Bradberry and Worley, two first-year defensive backs, will be in coverage against Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, who have both been named to the Pro Bowl.

Thomas, especially, will bear watching. In Super Bowl 50 the Panthers largely tethered cornerback Josh Norman to Thomas. Norman held Thomas to one catch for eight yards. In recent weeks, Norman took a swipe at Thomas in an ESPN story.

"I don't know what he was out there for," Norman said. "He was supposed to be an all-world guy, and I shut him down."

Thomas responded on Twitter with a picture of his Super Bowl ring.

Norman departed in free agency after the Panthers removed the franchise player tag and restocked in the draft. At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Bradberry is the biggest of the new arrivals, so he would seem to be a better matchup on Thomas. The Broncos expect the Panthers not to isolate their rookies in straight man-to-man situations.

"It's about what all 11 players do," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera of his first-year cornerbacks. "Hopefully our pass rush can create some tough situations. Hopefully our linebackers can give some good underneath help and hopefully our safeties over the top can be in position. I'm counting on the other nine guys to help out."

While it remains to be seen how much, if anything, either team learned in the Super Bowl that can be carried over into Thursday night's game, the Broncos were not all that active in the passing game in the title game.

Peyton Manning was 13-of-23 passing for 141 yards to go with an interception and was sacked five times. Sanders had six catches for 83 yards, as only Sanders and Andre Caldwell had receptions longer than 18 yards in the game.

The Broncos, who did not have a pass play longer than 25 yards that night, had an offseason makeover in the offensive line and believe they are ready to open up the downfield passing attack by doing a better job in the run game. They were 17th in the league last season in rushing yards and rushing attempts.

"I'm excited about the offense," Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway said. "I think that we have a chance to be better. We're better in the offensive line, especially as we get healthier. I think we're much better in the offensive line. Running back, I think we're deeper at running back. Our receivers are still good. I think we have a chance, as I've talked about, that we have a chance to be better offensively with a good balanced attack and have [Siemian] come in, play well and do the things that he can do."

For his part Thomas said Siemian "is a smart kid" who is ready to deal with the idea the Panthers might elect to stack the line of scrimmage to deter the Broncos' run game, putting the Broncos' offensive fortunes in Siemian's hands.

"I look forward to it," Thomas said. "He's talented. He can play. He's mobile and he can throw the ball. I really don't know what they're going to do because it’s his first game, first time being in the huddle as real game. We shall see once we get going. They might throw some different things at him. I’m sure they're going to play different than when they played us when we had Peyton. I look forward to it and I'm excited for it."