Quick Thoughts: Colts 27, Broncos 13

The Colts followed up their domination of the Giants by traveling to Mile High Stadium and defeating the plucky Denver Broncos by a final score of 27-13.  The Colts were led by Peyton Manning, Austin Collie, and a schizophrenic defense that could not decide if they wanted to bend, break, or stonewall the Broncos.  Here are my quick thoughts from the game:

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What a weird game.  It never felt like the Colts lost control of it, but at the same time it never felt like they were completely safe.  An inability to finish drives in the first quarter was a big part of that.  Two drives in the red zone, two field goals.  If they score touchdowns there, the game is over early.

Philip Wheeler, my favorite whipping boy on the defense, has been a completely different player after his struggles in week one against the Texans.  Against the Broncos, he played fast and smart: reading his keys well, and beating blockers to the ball carrier.  He combined his fast play with some great tackling, with his only gaffe coming on a play where he slipped and allowed Laurence Maroney to turn a short dump-off into a long completion.

It’s not something you hear people say very often, but the Colts secondary had a bad day.  While they seemed to play well through the first 30 minutes (when the Colts had only given up 3 total points), they struggled with both their tackling and their coverage in the second half.

The Broncos play-action passing game appeared to be especially troublesome for the Colts.  It served to keep the Colts defense off-balance, despite the Broncos lack of an effective running game.  This is something that the Colts can correct, and I expect it will be a point of emphasis this week as they prepare for the Jaguars, a team that loves to pound the ball and use play-action against the Colts.

The Colts were unable to generate much of a pass rush despite the fact that the Broncos were without their starting right tackle.  This was a contributing factor in some of the secondary’s problems, but not something that has me overly concerned.  The Broncos used a good mix of max protection, play-action bootlegs, quick passes, and blatant, uncalled holds to keep Freeney and Mathis in check.

The tactic of max protection, specifically, is fine for moving the ball between the 20-yard lines, but is not as effective once a team enters the red zone.  Indeed, we saw the Broncos struggle to score points once they were in the red zone, with their only touchdown of the day on a 48-yard pass to Brandon Lloyd.

It seemed like the Colts were baited into some poorly-timed blitzes by the Broncos max protect scheme.  Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer clearly wanted to help his pass rush by bringing extra men, but the Colts had a 13-point lead in the first quarter, and playing cover-2 would have forced Kyle Orton to play mistake-free football on long drives.  Instead, the blitzes and the resulting man coverage helped the Broncos chew up big chunks of yards at a time.

Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey turned short passes into big gainers for the Broncos when they went for the interception instead of the stop.  Interceptions are nice, but keeping the play in front of them, not allowing the opponent to get easy big gains, is more important.

Kelvin Hayden was a real roller coaster ride today.  He had some good coverage and great tackles on a majority of his plays, but once again struggled in man coverage and had a big missed tackle on Broncos rookie Demaryius Thomas in the second half.  His play has improved since last year, and even Week 1, but he’s still too inconsistent for a player the Colts defense relies on to cover the opposing team’s receivers.

One area where the Colts defense excelled was the red zone, where they had two successful fourth down stops — one of them coming in the form of a goal line stand.  In the goal line stand, which took place at the end of the first half, the Colts defensive line dominated the Broncos offensive line, allowing the linebackers and safeties to make plays at or near the line of scrimmage.  The Colts cornerbacks also tightened their coverage once the Broncos got inside the Colts 10-yard line, playing the Denver wide receivers physically.

In the second fourth down stop, which occurred in the fourth quarter, the Colts defense played well on the first three downs of the “stand”, but got somewhat lucky on the fourth down play.  The Colts sent a big blitz after Kyle Orton, but his target on the play failed to read the blitz and turn his head to find the ball.  He was open would have had the first down if the quarterback and receiver were on the same page.  On the other hand, part of being good is being lucky, and it was the Colts blitz that forced the hot throw, so give the Colts some credit.  In general, however, I wish they would dial down the number of blitzes.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Colts running game is what we thought it was.  The Broncos had no trouble containing the Colts running game on Sunday, holding them to 40 yards on 22 rushing attempts (or 1.8 yards per carry).  After watching the Giants get gashed again today, it’s safe to say that last week’s success on the ground was more a factor of opponent than of some magic elixir on the offensive line.

Speaking of the offensive line, they struggled mightily in both run blocking and pass protection.  Mike Pollak, Jeff Linkenbach, and Ryan Diem struggled the most of the starting group, with Pollak having an especially bad day.  The Colts will continue to struggle running the ball unless they can get improved play from the guards.

Brody Eldridge was not as spectacular as he was against the Giants, but his pass blocking was still a bright spot.  The Colts attempted to get him involved in the passing game, as well, but Peyton Manning quickly learned that he’s not as quick or agile as Dallas Clark.  They’ll get on the same page soon, however, and that will add another dimension to an already potent offense.

Speaking of Peyton Manning, this guy might be a starting quarterback one day.  Manning had another great day, going 27 of 43 for 325 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions.  His 63% completion percentage may not look as good as his previous two games (he completed over 70% in both), but that had more to do with the Broncos coverage, game plan, and a lack of illegal contact calls.

If you missed the game and you have not seen Manning’s passes to Collie on 3rd-and-15, and then again for a TD on that drive, you simply have to find the highlights somewhere.  As always, he’s been the Colts’ Most Valuable Player, and if he keeps it up, he’ll be the league’s MVP for a record-breaking fifth time.

I said this past week that it was  Austin Collie, not Pierre Garçon or Anthony Gonzalez, that was the Colts’ true number-two receiver.  Collie rewarded my faith in him by delivering a 12-catch, 171-yard, two-touchdown performance.  His 16 targets were more than Wayne and Clark, combined.  Once Manning found the match-up he wanted, he exploited it all the way to a 14-point victory.  Yes, Collie benefited from the constant double coverage on Clark and Wayne, but he made the most of his opportunities by running good routes, having sure-hands, and getting good yardage after the catch.

Overall it was an inconsistent game from the Colts, and while there is cause for concern about the yards given up to a Broncos receiving corps that lacks a true star, be encouraged by the continued improved play of the Colts defensive line and linebackers.  While there’s cause for concern over the Colts running game and offensive line, be encouraged by the fact that Peyton Manning is still the best player in the NFL, and seems to be getting even better.

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