FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In some ways, Emmanuel Sanders presents a different challenge for the Patriots than he did a year ago. The 5-foot-11 speedster has made fewer big plays with Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian than he did a year ago with now-retired Peyton Manning – big plays like the 34-yard catch he made in the first quarter of last January’s AFC title game – but he’s catching the ball more often and more reliably.

In other ways, however, Sanders presents the same challenge as ever, the same challenge he has posed since the Patriots first encountered him as a rookie in Pittsburgh in 2010. He’s fast. He’s elusive. He’s able to shake off ferocious hits as though he didn’t feel them.

“Sometimes, smaller guys, you think they’re not guys that catch the ball in traffic,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “But you see he had a catch against Kansas City (in November) where Eric Berry killed him over the middle – and he got up and celebrated. He’s a tough guy.”

Sanders can get down the field – and did, often, while Manning and Brock Osweiler were running the Broncos’ offense. He had six receptions last season that went for 40-plus yards, five of them on designed deep balls.

But Sanders does his best work on short routes that allow him to utilize his speed and elusiveness. That has increasingly been the case with Siemian under center for Denver this season. Sanders has just two catches for 40-plus yards all season – and only once since the end of September – and has seen his yards-per-reception drop from 14.9 last season to 12.8.

But Sanders has caught the ball more frequently, however – 58.6 percent of the time it has been thrown to him, up from 55.9 percent last season. He’s averaging 5.8 catches per game, up from 5.1.

The short passing game has worked effectively for Siemian and the Broncos this season – not just with Sanders but also with traditional deep threat Demaryius Thomas, whose catch rate has increased from 59.3 percent of targets to 63.9.

As ever, the primary task for the New England secondary will be to keep Sanders and Thomas in front of them and avoid big-yardage plays.

“Not every pass goes to one of them,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. “But if they hit a big one, that could be the end of the drive.”

“You see teams play them tough, get after the quarterback, make some plays,” McCourty said, “and then the fourth quarter comes and they hit Thomas for a 50- or 60-yard play and then Emmanuel Sanders breaks a tackle and he gets 40 yards. The next thing you know, they score 10-17 points in the fourth quarter to win a game.”

“You look at the production the last couple of years together in Denver, I don’t know if you’ll find a pair of receivers better than them.”


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