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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Demaryius Thomas keeps getting showered with praise and passes.
He was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Week for the first time in his career after helping Denver beat San Diego 28-20 Sunday, when he became the first Broncos receiver in a decade with a trio of TD receptions.
Thomas received a hearty pat on the back from interim coach Jack Del Rio for his acrobatic move on his first score in which he switched the football into his left hand as his momentum carried him out of bounds and swiped it across the pylon like a checkout clerk scanning a can of soda.
"I told him, 'Man, that was amazing,'" Del Rio said. "That was really good to watch in slow-mo. What a tremendous use of body control. With his size and speed and the angle he was at, to be able to coordinate himself and stay in bounds and get that thing across the pylon was just amazing."
Thomas admitted he's not supposed to expose the football like that, but said instincts took over "and I just wanted to get into the end zone."
It may have been No. 1 on Del Rio's list of the terrific touchdowns, but it wasn't even Thomas' favorite score of the day.
That came early in the third quarter when he lined up in the backfield to Peyton Manning's right, then cut in front of the quarterback as he went in motion to the left side. Gathering in the screen pass, Thomas twisted upfield and turned on the jets. He was still accelerating when he crossed the goal line 34 yards later.
"Smoke screens are my favorite thing to do," Thomas said. "After that catch, I feel, is my thing."
It's easy to see why Thomas says he's at his best with the ball in his hands — he leads NFL receivers with 377 yards after the catch.
At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Thomas is the biggest and probably strongest receiver Manning's ever played with, and he might just be the fastest, too.
All those attributes show up on the bubble screens.
"He's got great speed and he gets the ball in his hands and he's got a good feel for reading those blocks, which I think is a gift there. ... He's got a good feel for reading runs," Manning said.
"It probably goes back to all the runs he had to practice at Georgia Tech — they threw it like one time every three games," Manning added with a laugh. "So, he probably had to learn a lot about reading blocks for the running backs. But boy, he gets it in his hands and he's got great speed and power and it's fun to watch once he gets it in his hands, I'll say that."
Thomas said Manning's estimate isn't that far from the truth. He excelled in the Yellow Jackets' run-oriented offense by making the most of every chance he got.
He caught just 46 passes his breakout junior season, turning those catches into 1,154 yards and eight TDs.
Not much changed with Tim Tebow under center early in his Denver career, but now he hardly ever faces single coverage anymore, and working two seasons with Manning, he said, has turned him into a better, smarter receiver.
He said Manning told him he'd better figure out how to get open even if he's double-covered.
And he has.
Right before his first score Sunday, Thomas hauled in a nifty 28-yard over-the-shoulder catch with a cornerback and safety both bearing down on him.
Thomas has 55 catches for 793 yards this season and his nine TD receptions are tied with teammates Welker and Julius Thomas for tops in the AFC.
He finished with seven catches for 108 yards against the Chargers, earning him his first Player of the Week honor, which came as a surprise to Del Rio, who figured he must have had a nice collection of those by now.
"Really? It does surprise me, because he's had some monster games in the two years I've been here," Del Rio said. "Happy for him because he's a heck of a football player. He's a good, good man. Doesn't say a lot, just kind of comes in and goes to work every day, usually with a smile on his face. Yeah, I'm proud of him."
From his vantage point as defensive coordinator, Del Rio said he's seen great growth in Thomas ever since Manning's arrival in 2012.
"I've seen him put in the work," Del Rio said. "And he is a horse. I mean, he's a big guy that is fast and can catch, and those guys are tough to deal with in this league and he's one of the special ones."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org