The Colts Week 3 opponents, the Denver Broncos, are a somewhat familiar foe. These two teams have met on quite a few occasions this decade, but there has been significant turnover for the Broncos. Gone are the days of Mike Shanahan, the west coast offense, zone blocking schemes, and Jim Bates’ conservative 4-3 defense.
In are the days of Josh McDaniels, his spread offense, and a 3-4 attacking defense. Despite the changes, this match-up and the strategies deployed by McDaniels should be familiar as McDaniels is the former offensive coordinator of one of the Colts’ biggest rivals: the New England Patriots.
How they are built: The Denver Broncos run a spread style offense, usually using three to five wide receiver sets to stretch out defenses and create room for one-on-one match-ups for their wide receivers. The spread offense McDaniels deploys is different than what you see on Saturdays in college football. There are few gadgets and an athletic, mobile, quarterback is not required to run it (even though they drafted Tim Tebow). The spread offense is designed to allow receivers to beat single coverage on deep routes (beating their man deep) or short routes (run after the catch). In Denver, McDaniels does not have the same kind of players he had in New England – players like Randy Moss and Wes Welker. To work his way around that, the Broncos have run a fairly balanced attack, running the ball 63 times (though it is more like 57 when you take away Orton and Tebow’s runs) and throwing the ball 68 times to keep teams off-balance.
Defensively, the Broncos have switched from a 4-3 defense to an attacking 3-4 defense. In an attack style 3-4 defense, teams do not two-gap defenders. Instead, defensive linemen and linebackers are taught to penetrate and disrupt plays in the backfield. As is the case with all 3-4 defenses, linebackers are the focal point and the outside linebackers are the main source of pass rush. Denver normally has a pair of young promising pass rushers in Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers, but Dumervil is out for the season with a torn pectoral tendon, leaving the Broncos a little thin at a crucial area. To make up for this, the Broncos have a very experienced and proven secondary. Though they may have lost a step, Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey are still two of the best at their respective positions and are more than capable of coming up with a big play.
What they did last year: The Broncos started off the 2009 season red hot, winning their first six games. After their bye week, however, things fell apart as the Broncos dropped four straight, put up poor offensive performances, had bad special teams plays, and had an injury depleted defense. They managed two more victories but it was too little too late. The Broncos playoff hopes went up in flames in the final week against the Kansas City Chiefs, who pummeled them with the run game and forced Kyle Orton to throw three interceptions.
When they play the Colts: The coaches may be different, but the strategy will be similar to most every team the Colts face. Ball control will be the key for Denver. Expect McDaniels to continue his current formula of a balanced offense to keep the Colts defense out of sync. Denver will try to run the ball and mix in the pass to slow down the Colts pass rushers and loosen up the coverage on the back end.
On defense, the Broncos will try to blitz as little as possible to give the Colts receivers little room to operate. Last year, when the Broncos played the Colts in December, Denver shifted away from the blitz after the half and went with a nickel 3-3-5 set, rushing around three or four players to get pressure on Manning. Denver forced three interceptions, which kept the Broncos in it (although, 2 of those interceptions were more miscues on the Colts part, rather than terrific defensive plays). This will be tough for the Broncos to repeat as they will be without their top pass rusher, Elvis Dumervil, which will require Denver to get more creative to generate pressure.
The last time the Broncos defeated the Colts was in 2003, a week before a wildcard rematch, which the Colts won handily. In that game, the Broncos won by controlling the clock for around 44 minutes, ran the ball effectively, Jake Plummer had a clean game, and Denver was able to generate pressure with only their front four. If the Broncos want similar success this Sunday, they may have to repeat this formula.
Off-Season Moves: During the off-season, the Broncos traded their best wide receiver, Brandon Marshall, to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for two second-round draft choices. Denver used one of those picks to trade up in the 2010 NFL Draft to acquire Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. Though Kyle Orton has been more than serviceable for Denver it’s clear that the he is not the long-term answer at quarterback and Tebow offers more upside and potential as a future franchise quarterback.
The Broncos other major acquisition came in their first selection in this year’s draft. To make up for the loss of Brandon Marshall, Denver drafted Georgia Tech wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Thomas is a raw prospect with great physical tools and explosiveness, but needs work. At Georgia Tech, he was used in a system that was a spread triple option. This limited his ability to develop as a route runner as he only ran go-routes and curl-routes for most of his college career.
Outlook: The Broncos have a lot of young talent, but many of their players are still raw and need to gel together. I believe it will take them another few years of drafting players and development before they become legitimate contenders as they were in the John Elway era.