This is it; the big game. Indianapolis and Denver are both likely to go to the playoffs, and this game is the toughest game on the Denver schedule. IND is undefeated, has the best QB in the League, and a defense that hasn't missed a beat even when three of four starting defensive backs went down to injury earlier this season. The Colts feature an amazing one-two punch with their pass-rushing ends. They have an offensive line that protects their QB very well. In short, the Colts are a team to be respected for their well-earned accomplishments.
So there is only one question on the minds of Denver fans this week - "Can the Broncos beat Indianapolis this week?" My answer is "Yes". Let's face it, IND is a great team and they are (in my opinion) Super Bowl-bound. However, while a betting man ought to go with the Colts this weekend, the Broncos are better situated to hand the Colts an upset than most analysts might think. Denver is built to win this match-up in terms of system match-ups, and we'll explore the possibilities below the fold...
1. The Colts are facing the best secondary ever assembled on one team
Denver features a legendary secondary. Champ Bailey is a future Hall of Famer, and has shown this year that he is still one of the elite cornerbacks in the League. Most folks will look quickly at how many interceptions a CB has to measure worth, but this can be deceiving. Not many QBs throw towards Champ because of fear of INTs. While Champ hasn't racked up INTs this year, he has broken up enough pass plays to make the receivers he covers worthless (and he's faced many of the best this year). Champ can turn on a dime, has blazing speed, is a sure tackler (he gets several RB tackles in many of his games), and has a wealth of experience and study skills to fall back on.
(Photo courtesy thestate.com)
"Nothing escapes a black hole, not light or even time", Einstein.
At free safety, Brian Dawkins (another future Hall of Famer) is deadly to opposing offenses. He has the speed and intelligence to cover the deep field for passes while STILL reading and reacting quickly enough to meet opposing RBs near scrimmage. He is one of the hardest hitting players in the game, and seems to be in on every play. As a team leader, he ensures that the rest of the defense is playing up to his non-stop standard of play.
Andre' Goodman has four INTs so far this year, and has shown that he can take the heat when opposing QBs refuse to throw towards Bailey. He has been a sure tackler, and a solid addition to the defense. Likewise, Renaldo Hill (playing at strong safety with two INTs) has proven that there is no weak link on a start studded secondary. He has shown the ability to cover deep zones as well as cover runs in shorter coverages.
Rookie David Bruton, a back-up safety, was likely taken in the draft to serve as a powerful special teams coverage player and fills the role nicely. However, there are some injury questions for him going into Sunday's game.
So is the secondary the reason for Denver fans to put their hopes in an upset? Surprisingly, I would say no. I don't think any team is going to have much luck disguising coverages against Peyton Manning. In my mind, Peyton Manning is the best QB in the NFL, but not because of his physical skills. Peyton Manning has an uncanny skill. He is able (due to incredible intelligence) to keep track in his mind of every route his players are running simultaneously, and to do this under pressure. This includes what his receivers will switch to on broken plays. Manning can then throw the ball without looking, and nail his target with precision. Manning has the physical tools that other excellent pocket passers have, but his mind is what sets him apart. Combine Manning's talent with timed passing patterns, and Manning becomes the closest human possibility to playing with a QB that can win blindfolded.
Coach's note - The way for a secondary to beat a timed passing game is to jam receivers. This throws off the timing patterns, and forces the QB to re-evaluate his options.
Even an elite secondary like the Broncos will leave an opportunity at some point during each play. The longer a play goes on, the more chances a receiver has for separation. And of course, there are always the quick hooks and curls that pick up short yards in bunches.
So while the secondary is a key component, it isn't the prime way to beat Manning. The pass rush is.
2. The Colts are facing an incredible pass rush
If The Colts are to be stopped, the pass rush will be the reason. The rare team that limits Manning and his high powered passing game is the team that gets to Manning. Sacks are great, but not required. If Manning is harassed, he can't make ideal throws. No quarterback wants to throw before a play is fully developed. And while there are QBs known for being good at passing while running, no QB prefers to do so. Manning is a big QB, and can absorb some punishment and make some decent moves. But he is not considered a mobile QB, and his value to his team dictates that he shouldn't be taking any hits if he is tempted to move downfield.
Denver's 3-4 (which looks like and is run like a 5-2) is truly in line with the "Amoeba Philosophy" that Coach McDaniels brought with him from New England. Denver not only has seven players up front who are very talented, but they are capable of rotating in about five other players on a regular basis without a drop in talent. Several of these players make plays at the "micro" level that don't garner recognition, but create opportunities for other players. This spreads the talent out, and keeps several players from getting recognition they deserve. But this is fine, because "winning", not individual recognition, is how this front seven works. Despite this philosophy, one player stands out.
(Photo courtesy of Yahoo News)
"Another one bites the dust", Queen
Elvis Dumervil is the NFL's leading sack master. At 15 sacks during the first 12 games, the odds show that "Doom" will get a little over a sack every game. That's an excellent enough stat, but it becomes dizzying when one considers the sheer quantity of hurry-ups that Doom gets that don't even turn into sacks. And hurry-ups, not sacks, are what defensive coordinators dream of.
Coach's note - Denver loves to move Dumervil around between the two OLB/DE positions. He's hard enough to stop as is, but his switches add one more crucial delay to the QB's protection coverage calls. Teams HAVE to account for where he is.
Fans love sacks, as do defensive players. Fans love sacks because they lead to a loss of yards and a down (not to mention rattling the opposing QB). Players strive for them because a sack is the end result of a goal - to get to the QB. But to a defensive coordinator, sacks are wonderful but not the ideal. Hurry-ups cause one of several possibilities. They lead to hurried decisions on the part of the QB, thus increasing the potential for incomplete passes or interceptions. A sack is a wonderful thing, but continuous pressure is what a DC is really after.
Here's an analogy. A race dog (probably a greyhound) really wants to catch the robotic rabbit on a rail. If he catches it, that's great (which of course, never really happens). I'm sure that spectators would like this result too. But the purpose of the rabbit, and the real goal for the betters, is for the dog to run fast enough to win the race.
So a sack or two would be loads of fun. But if Denver wants to beat INDY, the real key to the game (above all others) is for Denver's front seven to find ways to hurry Manning on a regular basis.
3. Denver's style of offense slows down the tempo, and keeps the Colt's strength off the field
Denver does two things very well. First, the play a low risk passing game that dinks and dunks the ball down the field. It isn't a spectacular thing to watch, but it takes time of possession away from the other team. It is also an effective way to counter defenses that use a lot of zones (like INDY).
(Photo Courtesy of Yahoo)
"There's a new sheriff in town" Eddie Murphy
from the movie "48 Hours"
The other thing that Denver does is run the ball very well. Here again, we take time off the clock and keep the ball from Manning. While Denver only "only" ranks ninth in rushing, they have been coming on strong lately. Knowshon Moreno is leading rookies with rushing yards (despite splitting carries with Correll Buckhalter), while Buckhalter holds an amazing 5.4 yards per carry average. In theory, one could give Buckhalter the ball and do nothing else while gaining first downs every other play.
IND is a high tempo team. They love shootouts, and win games without success in running (they are 32nd in rushing yards).
Denver has stars all over the offense, including four excellent receivers, three excellent TEs, and an amazing offensive line. Denver's only offensive concern might be the loss to Injured Reserve of RT Ryan Harris, though Denver is confident that the role can be filled well.
Keys to the Game
(image courtesy of Flickr.com)
Pressure Manning. This is the ONLY way to stop the Colts offense, based on years of results. If you can't pressure Manning, you can't win the game. Period.
If Denver can run the ball consistently well, the battle is half over. Manning has to be hurried to stop his advances, but keeping him off the field is the next step.
Don't leave points on the field. IND is going to score points, no matter how you slice it. Denver cannot afford to punt or turn the ball over much. And while I'm a conservative type (I'm almost always fine with field goals when others are screaming for touchdowns), we need more TDs than FGs in this game.
- This game is the toughest game left on the schedule. Don't take it for granted. Forget about going undefeated, and forget about the playoffs being a lock. Denver is better that their record suggests, and they are getting better. The Steelers just learned a hard lesson about trying to beat an opponent in cruise control.
- The Colts have two outstanding DEs. Kyle Orton is a solid QB, but can make mistakes under pressure. The DEs can take away the passing game and allow the rest of the team to handle the run.
- Watch out for Eddie Royal on special teams. He can shut down the home crowd and give Denver and easy seven points without Orton and Buckhalter even touching the field.
You don't take a team that is undefeated after 12 games and pick against them. You just don't. But looking at the type of game that each team plays, this game isn't in the bank for the Colts by a long shot. Indianapolis should win this game at home behind Peyton Manning, and if you had to bet, that's where the money goes. But then again, I wouldn't bet on this game. The smart money says to take your money elsewhere.