Introducing our new weekly feature: Throwdown Thursday. Every week Marcus Dugan will routinely embarrass and publicly own Todd Smith as they debate a question about the coming matchup. This is about humiliation, not football.
Seriously, this week the Colts face what is likely their toughest game of the regular season. The Broncos, coming off a disappointing Super Bowl performance look to set things in motion for another shot at the Lombardi trophy. The Colts look to patch holes and make their own path to the title.
Among the biggest tests will be someone the Colts know well: Peyton Manning. This week’s Throwdown Thursday question should be obvious: can the Colts generate enough of a pass rush to buy the secondary time against the Sheriff?
Before we start, I know Marcus and I agree on the difficult nature of this task facing the defensive front seven thanks in large part to Robert Mathis’ suspension. Heck, we agree on lots of other stuff about this matchup but that is the biggest single factor in this year’s pass rush conundrum.
With that out of the way I have to say I’m more optimistic than some regarding the pass rush. Let’s not get crazy: I’m not suggesting the team will have a terrific time against Peyton and the Broncos. They’re going to have to blitz–it’s that simple. Manning is going to be licking his chops when he sees the blitz so it’s imperative the Colts disguise coverage and blitz packages as much as possible. Also, the Colts are going to have to rely on improved play from the front three against the run in order to keep Manning honest and allow the safeties to remain in coverage rather than run support. It’s that possibility of being stiffer against the run that gives me hope the Colts can force the Broncos into more obvious passing situations and turn the linebackers loose. So step 1: don’t give up big runs and keep the safeties in coverage.
Second, the Colts absolutely have to have to get productivity from Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden. Werner has shown bursts of speed in pursuit. Let’s hope he shows it this weekend. As for Walden, it’s time to earn his paycheck.
The interior linebackers also need to provide some pressure but that’s all going to come from blitz packages. The less they have to rely on that the more likely the Colts are to succeed.
Overall, a moderate pass rush could be an unlikely path to success for the Colts. If they get enough pressure they can force Manning into one of those classic, poorly-timed picks and turn the game their way in Denver.
Like most Colts fans, we both want the same things to happen in this game, but it won’t be easy. The Colts are in a bad situation opening the season on the road against an elite offense and without their best pass rusher. The answer, usually, is to blitz a little more often, but they’ll be facing the ultimate destroyer of blitzing defenses in Manning and will need to pick their spots.
Alternatively, one thing we’d like to see, as Todd mentioned, is the bigger stronger interior line holding their own against the run game and forcing obvious passing situations that work to the defense’s advantage. The caveat there is that the 3-wide ‘Manning’ offense forces 3-4 defenses like Indy’s to spend a great deal of time in the nickel, taking away much of their capacity for trickery as well as one of their big, hefty run stuffers in the middle.
Indianapolis had just five plays all game in their base 3-4 set last year against Denver, versus 72 (give or take a couple) in the nickel formation with two linemen in the middle and the two OLBs essentially playing the role of 4-3 defensive ends. Denver’s constant 3-wide sets will force the Colts to try to accomplish their goals of defense-friendly 2nd and 3rd and longs with a plain-Jane four-man front.
And that brings us back to the question of blitzing: Last season, the Colts sent more than four rushers after the quarterback on 33% of their plays (PFF), but against the Broncos in Week 7, that number dropped to 23% (18/77). When Indianapolis did send an extra rusher, Manning appeared content in the knowledge that it would be Jerrell Freeman nearly every time.
The Colts countered by having Freeman mask his intent, falsely showing blitz and vice versa. He even pretended to bite on a snap count once; jumping forward, then acting dejected as 18 pointed him out and changed the protection. When the ball snapped, Freeman calmly dropped back to cover the middle, but despite the impressive pre snap Oscar performance, the pass was complete – over the middle – for seven yards and a first down at the one. The moral: We’d like to see the Colts try to fool Manning this Sunday with disguised blitzes and coverages, but deep down, we all know better than to expect it to work.
My belief is that the Colts need to find a way to collapse the pocket with a four-man rush. From my messy, hand-written game chart, the defense generated pressure against Manning without blitzing on an impressive 23 out of 77 plays in 2013, counting non-dead ball penalties (holding, PI), and a few plays in which Peyton still calmly stepped up and delivered a bomb.
The problem is most of those pressures involved Mathis. If Bjoern Werner, Erik Walden (yes, him too), and the interior guys don’t step up on an otherworldly level Sunday night, things could become ugly quickly…and then they’ll start blitzing the blitz-killer too often. Despite all that, We’re optimistic. Go Colts.