Colts v. Broncos, and Things of That Nature (Week 3 Preview)

The Colts rebounded from their embarrassing week one loss to the Texans by delivering one of the most dominating performances of the young 2010 NFL season.  The Colts outplayed and out-coached the Giants in every phase of the game, as they coasted to a 38-14 victory in front of a prime-time audience.

But which Colts team can we expect to see on Sunday as they travel to Denver to take on the Broncos?  The team that lacked focus and discipline on both sides of the ball and surrendered over 250 rushing yards to the Texans?  Or the team that dominated the Giants along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, that ran and passed the ball at will, and stifled their opponent’s ability to do either?

After the jump we’ll take a look at the match-up and what I expect to happen in this battle of AFC playoff hopefuls.

I believe the true Colts team lies somewhere in the middle.  Both the Texans and Giants game were a perfect storm of circumstances that combined to produce the respective outcomes.  Against the Texans, the Colts had multiple offensive linemen coming off of long-term injuries, there was public unrest from wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, and the Texans built the game up to be a must-win game.  Those factors, along with the Colts miscues, seemed to doom the Colts from the start, as they were never able to get into a good rhythm, and the game eventually got away from them.

The Giants game had similar circumstances.  The Colts entered the game with extreme focus, determined to make up for their previous week’s play, all on a prime-time stage.  The Colts jumped out to a quick lead and the Giants were buried in an avalanche of Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, a gashing running game, and an energetic crowd.  The Giants game-plan and lack of in-game adjustments seemed to only aid the Colts cause.

I do not think we’ll see another team on the Colts schedule follow the Giants blueprint for playing Indianapolis.  The Giants decided to take the common route of playing a lot of nickel and dime defenses against the Colts (sub-packages where the defense removes one and two linebackers respectively in lieu of additional defensive backs), deciding that if the Colts were going to beat them, they’d have to beat them on the ground.  The Giants took it a step too far, however, by deactivating their defensive tackles prior to kickoff.

This left the Giants with an extremely small defense.  One that might have been well equipped to attack an offense playing from behind but was overwhelmed by the Colts patient commitment to the running game.  Joseph Addai and Donald Brown enjoyed more running room than either has had in quite some time, and they took full advantage of it.  Once the running game started to gash the Giants, the flood gates opened, as this allowed the play-action pass to work with maximum effectiveness.

Will the Broncos fall into the same traps the Giants did?  I would not bet on it.  I expect the Broncos to come out with a more balanced game-plan on both sides of the ball.

On defense, it looks like cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman are primed to take the field on Sunday, despite having significant leg and foot injuries that forced both players to miss significant practice time this week.  Their availability will allow the Broncos to play the run with their front seven while using what they consider an elite secondary to cover the Colts receivers with limited help.

The Colts, on the other hand, may be limited in how they can attack the Broncos defense.  I originally thought that the Colts would use their posse (3WR, 1TE, 1RB) formation, but the availability of Colts number two wide receiver Pierre Garçon is iffy, at best.  Garçon has missed the majority of this week’s practice with a hamstring injury that was apparently suffered during Wednesday’s practice.

Even if Garçon is available on a limited basis Sunday, I expect the Colts main method of attack to be their ace (2TE 2WR 1RB) formation.  This was the formation that they utilized so effectively on Sunday night, when rookie tight end Brody Eldridge was able to showcase the blocking skills that prompted the Colts to use a fifth round pick on him in this year’s draft.  Eldridge’s blocking was a major factor in helping the Colts run and pass block at a much higher level than they did in Week One.

For the Colts, the effectiveness of their runs is more important than their number of rushing attempts, and if Eldridge can help Addai and Brown run effectively early on — Bailey and Goodman or not — Manning will begin to dissect the Broncos’ secondary with his magical play-action skills.

When the Broncos have the ball, I expect their offense to be fairly balanced, as well.  They will be missing second-year running back Knowshon Moreno, who pulled a hamstring during practice on Friday, but will still be in fairly capable hands with backups Correll Buckhalter and Laurence Moreny handling the majority of the rushing duties.

As for the Broncos passing attack, many observers believe the team is better off without Brandon Marshall, as it has allowed quarterback Kyle Orton to utilize all of his weapons effectively without worrying about any diva drama.  I expect Orton to play his normal steady, efficient game.  His style will be effective for as long as the Broncos are ahead or relatively close to the Colts on the scoreboard.

From a defensive perspective, I do not expect the Colts to do anything out of character on Sunday.  The Broncos will be missing their starting right tackle Ryan Harris, which should mean a big day for part-time defensive end, part-time blue blur Robert Mathis.  If the Broncos elect to double-team Mathis, it should afford all-universe (and one of the most feared, in my opinion, for the next 5 years) defensive end Dwight Freeney multiple single block looks, and multiple sack opportunities.

One strategy the Broncos may use to counter the Colts pass rush is utilizing the quick passing game.  This will play into the Colts defensive philosophy, as they believe the more attempts you make during a long drive, the higher the chances are the offense makes a mistake.  The onus will be on the Colts back seven to bring the receivers down with the first or second tackler, forcing the Broncos into second- and third-and-long situations.

I believe that is exactly what will happen.  The Colts are a veteran team, an experienced team, a championship hungry team.  They did not fix their problems on defense last week just to have those same questions arise a week later.  Just like the offensive line did not up it’s play one week because the Giants offended their sensibilities.  This is a team that knows what its goals are, and those goals do not include inconsistent, undisciplined play.  The Colts are a team that will beat the teams they should beat, and given their talent-level and injury situation, the Broncos are a team the Colts should beat.

I expect the Broncos to make a game of it early.  It will be an emotional start to the game for Denver, and I expect them to keep pace with the Colts through most of the first half.  After the half, however, I expect Manning and the pass rush to take over, and I think the Colts pull away and win with relative comfort.

I do not like doing this two weeks in a row, but I believe the Colts will win by a score of 35-21.

Note:  This was the score I gave on this week’s Check it to Pancakes podcast on Thursday night.  I’m going to stick with it, because I want to be consistent, but, given the injuries to Ryan Harris and Knowshon Moreno, I think the Broncos could be held to something between 10 and 21.  Either way, I expect the Colts to win comfortably and move to 2-1 going into a very important divisional showdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Until Sunday night…