Recently there has been a lot of talk about what Emmanuel Sanders brings to the Broncos offense but after I had watched a few games much of it went against what I saw. I didn't want to say anything until I had the chance to watch the rest of his 2013 season though. I treated this exercise like I do my scouting reports for some of the Broncos vets but I won't be going into that much detail. I do hope to explain what Emmanuel Sanders brings to the table for the Broncos. I'll try and keep this short but hopefully clear as well. Let's look first at Sanders' strengths and weaknesses.
- Sanders has very good straight line speed, he's able to out run linebackers and most safeties but did not display the speed to consistently break away from quick corners like we saw last season from Demaryius Thomas and Andre Caldwell.
- Has good hands and doesn't drop the ball often, had a lower drop percentage last year than DT, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. On short passes, especially outside fades, he has a solid skills when it comes to pin pointing the pass and then making the jump and catch on the outside shoulder.
- Smart player who excels when facing zone coverage where he can exploit holes in the zone, it's where he had most of his success. He's able to identify and attack zone defenses very effectively, now part of this is obviously from the fact he doesn't run set routes very often, but with that freedom he's given, if he sees the defense is running zone coverage on the outside, he's able to diagnosis it and then find it's weaknesses allowing him to make the catch.
- Has a decent cut which helps him avoid defenders who take bad angles when trying to tackle him mid-field. It's almost a jump cut like what some running backs use, it's pretty unique for a wide receiver to use and quite effective, he avoided 14 tackles last season using it.
- Good blocker on screen passes and trick plays (such as end around's).
- Was a liability on run downs and was taken off the field on many of the rushing plays. When he was left on the field he struggled to block effectively, on a few specific plays he actually runs into the back while trying to find his blocking assignment. Counter intuitive to his last strength I know, I can't explain why he has such variance when it comes to blocking.
- Avoids contact as a receiver, preferring to dodge corners at the expense of running his route. Doesn't have the arm strength to breakaway or push off (legally of course) when the ball is in the air and it's contested. The Steelers had five interceptions when throwing to Sanders and four of those were, at least in part, because Sanders either gave up on the ball or was out muscled.
- Struggles locating the ball on deep passes. While he did run routes that took him deeper than 20 yards 21.3% pf the time (32nd most in the NFL, lower percentage the DT and Andre Caldwell) he only had six receptions and one touchdown. Far too often will stop his route or change it away from the direction the ball is going, a catchable ball hits grass quite commonly because he losses it in the sky.
- Isn't able to break tackles once a defender has their hands on him, he averaged only 4.4 yards after catch last season and this is one reason why, if he doesn't have room to move, he can't break tackles. He only averaged 0.9 yards after contact in 2013 as well, if the field isn't open around him (which gives him room to do his cut), he's going down.
So let's put this together to discuss what type of player Sanders is and isn't.
First let's start with what Sander is not. Last season the Steelers tried to use Sanders in two main ways, the first was as a deep threat, usually running just a straight go route or an out and go. The second way they used him was as a short an intermediate route runner, using a lot of screen passes and 10-15 yard comeback routes. By having him run shorter, quicker routes they tried to take advantage of his speed, but instead of using it to get open, they tried to use him to get yards after the catch. After about 13 games the Steelers found something out, they were using Sanders wrong. Of the three main type of routes they had Sanders running (deep go, screen and comeback) only the comeback was consistently effective.
Sanders has the speed to go deep but isn't a great deep receiver and was one of the more inefficient deep players in the league catching only 26.1% of passes thrown to him deeper than 20 yards on 26 targets, that 60th in the league. The Steelers were using Sanders to run deep routes to try and do two things. The first was to get open, try and get that big play, the second was that he'd draw the safety away from the more potent wide receivers Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery. This second reason is what some call "taking the top off the defense." What the Steelers found was that the second reason was also ineffective. I tracked on often in single safety situations (where the safety has to choose between two targets) the safety went to Sanders side and it only happened on 19% of his deep routes. Even when lined up opposite Cotchery the safety slid away from Sanders. What this means is defenses didn't respect Sander and Sanders didn't make them pay for their disrespect. This became more evident as the season went on, in weeks 14 through 16 opponents used their 3rd corner on Sanders 73% of the time.
The second route they found out didn't work well was the screen pass, let me explain. Similar to the deep routes the Steelers wanted to make use of Sanders speed to get yards after the catch. This is a logical idea, you put a fast player in a position with the ball and blockers ahead and they should be able to make plays, we saw this in the past for the Broncos with Demaryius Thomas. What the Steelers quickly realized what that Sanders was not very good after the catch in tight space, which is what you need. You need the vision to follow your blockers and then find the opening and take off, Sanders couldn't do that.
Another factor was that of Sanders five drops, two were on screen passes. Watching both of those passes you can see Sanders is thinking their will be contact and isn't focusing on catching the ball, he is instead bracing his body and looking around, not the skills you want from your screen catcher. So it didn't take long before the Steelers lowered his targets on that route as well, nearly in half by week 12.
But then how did the Steelers use Emmanuel Sanders effectively?
The Steelers made some changes to Sanders routes late in the season to see if they could find out how to use him better, and after watching those changes I think I see the best way to use Sanders. What I found is that when you combine Sanders' quick hips with his speed you'll find he had the most consistent success when he ran single cut routes. This is where the receiver starts running one route at full speed (this convinces the corner that he's committing to that route and with Sanders' reputation for running a limited route tree, this helped) then make a sharp cut away from the corner. By doing this Sanders is forcing the corner to commit to his first route and when he makes that quick change, the corner is caught out of position, allowing Sanders to make the catch cleanly. This makes for a great weapon in the Broncos timing offense which relies more on receivers being open in certain windows.
So how should the Broncos use Emmanuel Sanders?
In short, the Steelers used Sanders' speed against defenders with smart route mapping using a lot of comebacks, corner and post routes. Sanders was a more effective player as a route runner than he ever was as a deep threat or yards after the catch guy. Many, including the coaching staff, were convinced they needed to use his speed to "take the top off the defense" or to try and break big plays, this only hurt Sanders, while he's fast, he's not that type of player. Almost all his success is running these simple, one cut routes. He doesn't have to be a great route runner to use them, his speed is convincing enough. If the Broncos use him like the Steelers did early in 2013, he will struggle, but if they learn from what the Steelers did, play to his strengths as an intermediate receiver on the outside, the Broncos will get the most out of their young talent. He won't be drawing many safeties away from DT or taking the #2 corner off of Julius Thomas or Wes Welker, but he'll get open enough against the nickel and dime corners to make an impact.
There is a good chance for success for Emmanuel Sanders but only if the Broncos learn from history. He provides a player who does compliment DT but not in the way many think. He won't pull the safety away from DT or draw double coverage, but he will take advantage of facing lesser corners and consistently catching what comes his way. Don't make the same mistakes that others have made, learn from them. As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If the Broncos try and use Sanders as a deep threat like they did with Decker, it won't be the end of the world but Sanders won't be very productive either.