We all know that McDaniels preaches about situational football to his team. What he is referring to are those handfuls of plays and drives, i.e. those situations, that recur every game. From 1st and 10 to the 2-minute offense, every situation has particular goals that must consistently be achieved in order to have success in other situations, which in turn lead to success in still other situations. The upshot is about getting the advantage leading into the biggest situation of all: watching the clock hit zero and being ahead on the scoreboard.
Heading into the Colts game, there are numerous key situations that Denver will be watching for, and hoping to capitalize on, as well as situations they will be hoping to avoid if possible. Overall these two teams have comparable potential on both offense and defense: in other words, good offenses that are going to move the ball on average defenses.
Lets take a look at each team's success rates in given situations (I track 16 of them), and see what kind of matchups exist...
Getting Off On The Right Foot
First and ten success depends on getting teams into 2nd and 6 or less, a number calculated from overall NFL success rates in acheiving first downs. Basically when teams find themselves in 2nd and 6 or better, the advantage moves significantly in favor of the offense. Both Denver and Indianapolis have above average rates in this area, and elite success rates in "1st/2nd +4" situations, which are measures of a team's ability to get themselves into 3rd and 6 or better situations, which is the minimum level of advantage available to the offense (success rates across the NFL are 50-55% on 3rd and 6, while 3rd and 7+ sees that rate drop drastically).
Denver Offense vs. Colts Defense
Denver should be able to maintain their 45% success rate(SR) on 1st down when they go against the Colts. The Broncos increased their "1st and 10" SR significantly between the JAX and SEA matchups, partially because Denver was able to move away from the pass late vs. Seattle. McDaniels likes to keep a good balance run/pass early, and what passes Orton does throw tend to be to the TEs and RBs, high percentage short routes. This helps against teams that can get up the field in a hurry, like the Colts, since Orton doesn't hold the ball very long on 1st down. Overall the Colts were dominated on 1st down by the Houston running game(23%SR), but even against the Giants their success rate against the run was only 39%. Early balance is one of the keys to helping Denver set up a 74% success rate on "1st/2nd +4" which is how they get into favorable 3rd downs. The good news is that Denver is practically guaranteed to put themselves into favorable 3rd downs throughout the game (74% vs. 22% for the Colts), the bad news is that Denver doesn't matchup quite as well on 3rd downs as we might like.
Colts Offense vs. Denver Defense
Overall, the Colts offense is better on first down success than Denver's offense, but the Denver defense is also comparably better against first down, and overall has more of an edge than the Colts defense does. The Colts have a dominating pattern of getting 4+ on 60% of their first down plays, and when that doesn't work, they still manage a favorable 3rd down 75% of the time. Their formula has been run-heavy in the first quarter, especially running from passing formations. In the Houston game they switched over almost completely to passing on first down at the end of the second quarter, and in the Giants game, where they had the game well in hand, they ended up choosing the run on first down almost exclusively. They definitely rely on Peyton when the going gets tough, including on "1st and 10+" and on "2nd and 7+". Thankfully he isn't near as dominating in those situations, failing to succeed on 3 "1st and 10+" opportunities (which isn't terribly unusual...many teams use that situation to push the ball downfield on riskier plays if defenses insist on tightening up against them), and only 56% conversion rate on "2nd and long" in 25 opportunities.
The Denver defense matches almost equally with the Colts offense in the event that Denver can force incompletions or bottle the run on first down, forcing longer 2nd down situations. Denver has been the most successful when shutting down medium and deep passing routes, and off-tackle runs. However, Jones-Drew was very successful against them running inside (Seattle's Forsett, not so much), and both Marcedes Lewis and Carlson were difficult to stop in the seam. The only coverage that worked so far was Dawkins on the TE, but Denver will need more solutions available since Dallas Clark is exactly the kind of seam threat that gives Denver trouble. With Goodman likely out, and Bailey up-in-the-air, it is important that Cox and Vaughn be prepared to step up in run support on the outside, limiting the weakness to the interior running game. DJ is key here, if he can shed some blocks and clog up the slower developing shotgun runs.
Those Tricky 3rd Downs
The most likely scenario is that the Denver offense will be able to get itself into favorable 3rd downs on 3 out of 4 series, while the Colts can expect similar results. When it comes to 3rd downs, however, the two offenses begin to diverge. Overall, Denver has the better 3rd down offense, but the Colts have a better overall 3rd down defense. Again, the two teams may expect similar results, despite their differences.
Denver Offense vs. Colts Defense
Denver has a significant advantage in both"3rd and 1-2" and especially in "3rd and 4-6". The Denver offense is designed to create favorable 3rd downs in the 3rd and 4-6 range, so it should be no surprise that Orton has mastered that situation in his second year. Denver has a 100% conversion rate for "3rd and 4-6" and all of it has come on the arm of Orton, who has spread the ball to multiple targets in that situation. And while the Indy defense maintains a 40% stop rate on "3rd and 4-6", their weakness has been against the short passing game. And even when Denver finds themselves in "3rd and 7-11" situations, they still are quite closely matched with the Colts (40% vs. 43%). Denver should expect to be able to sustain drives against the Colts, with early run/pass balance and Orton airing it out on 3rd down.
Colts Offense vs. Denver Defense
The Colts offense has been just a shade less productive on 3rd downs than Denver, but are still pushing the limits of the defense's advantage. While the Colts will also enjoy a healthy advantage on the 3rd and 4-6 situations, they have shown a tendency to play to Denver's strength on "3rd and 1-2", often passing quick and short out of the shotgun. Since pass rush isn't a factor on these kinds of plays, Denver's weakness in this area doesn't affect their success rates. Strong backfield play and recognition, which Denver normally has in spades, however, is highly impactful on this type of play. If Indy is smart they will attack the middle of Denver's defense in 3rd and short situations, where Denver is treading water. If Denver is smart, they will work hard on their interior run gaps in practice, so that they can be more disruptive than they have been to date. Again, the majority of their struggles came against Jones-Drew, so this could be an opportunity to gain some confidence against inside running.
Neither team has significant advantages on "3rd and 7-11" or "3rd and 12+", though Denver has seen a little success in those tough situations, while Indy has seen less. Fortunately, while Indy's best chance will be struggling to disrupt denver's 1st/2nd rhythm and force them into 3rd and 7+ (with none of Indy's strengths playing into this and with Orton being the incarnation of ball-protection), Denver's defense should still have a fighting chance even if the Colts are attempting to convert 3rd and short (especially if Indy insists on passing in those situations, as they have done all year).
Red Zones, Near and Far
"Coming Out Offense -15"
The shadow of your endzone is no place to be playing from, but neither the Broncos or Colts are affected much by it, nor have they had consistent success stopping others. Don't expect that to change on Sunday. Denver and Indy both boast 100% success rates getting back to the other side of the 20 yard line, where the field position battle becomes more neutral territory. Unfortunately, Denver has been backed up 3 times as often as the Colts have, due to special teams play. That is another trend that needs to get corrected, but probably won't be, as the Colts have very good kicking and punting units and have successfully forced opponents to start deep in their own territory just as often as Denver has failed to get out of their own. Denver statistically can be projected to hold their own even if the special teams continues to struggle, but getting it straightened out this week could be the difference between going punch for punch with the Colts offense or not.
Denver Red Zone Offense vs. Colts Red Zone Defense
This might be the most fascinating matchup in the entire game. Denver has been excellent from the opponents 25 yard line in ("RZ +25" etc.) converting at least 75% of their trips (including 1 FG from 20 yds), and once they get inside the 10, that number jumps to 100%. The Colts defense, on the other hand is very unique. In week one The Colts failed to stop Houston on 5 out of 5 trips into the redzone. A couple of those trips trudged down to score TDs, but the rest basically went over the top of the Colt's defense once they had breached the edge of the redzone. Then, the following week, between Eli's fumbles and the Giants myriad mistakes, the Colts didn't face a single redzone situation. And I start the redzone measure at +25 due to the prolific nature of offenses currently, but still the Giants failed to find the redzone. So the Colts essentially went from a zero success rate to a "does not apply", and as a result they are sitting on a 0% success rate against opponents in the red zone. And while I think they could get better play out of their safeties, I certainly don't think we will see the colts at 0% after this weekend.
With that said, Denver has done a good job of scoring quickly once they get into the red zone, and only twice out of 9 trips have they had to take more than 4 plays to score once they got close. And while the majority of the yards have come via Orton's arm, the Broncos haven't been shy about attempting to pound it in once they got inside the 5, where their success rate speaks for itself. Finishing drives doesn't look to be a spectre that haunts the Broncos in 2010.
Colts Red Zone Offense vs. Denver Red Zone Defense
The Colts enjoy a near perfect red zone offense, with their only struggle coming on the far outside fringe against Houston. On one drive. Thankfully, Denver has managed to stiffen up quite well both times opponents got inside the 10 yard line, so at least the Colts will have their work cut out for them in close. But in what looks like a growing trend, the Colts, too, tend to favor by-passing the redzone in large passing chunks, getting in and getting out quickly and running the majority of their offense from the shotgun. Denver has already struggled twice to corral offenses that utilized the TE in these situations, and Indy looks to make it 3 for 3. Denver needs to focus on creating pressure from speed on the outside once the Colts cross the 25 yard line. Those same speed rushers can come off the field inside the 10, if Denver manages to hold out that long. One problem with that is that one of Denver's quicker rushers is Ayers, who is also one of their better run support and close quarters players. If he can have a big game, he could single handedly make all the difference.
Timing Is Everything
Finally, I'll take a look at the two "timed" offenses that teams practice, the 2 minute and the 4 minute drill. In a lot of ways the two concepts are opposites. The 2-minute drill focuses on the outside of the field, stopping the clock and taking shots at first down throws, the 4-minute drill focuses on milking the clock, staying in between the hash marks and chewing up yardage slowly but consistently.
2- and 4-minute Offense and Defense
The Colts have long been known for their success in this offense, and even though they are credited for much more of it than they actually run (due to their no-huddle style), they still are the bench mark in 2-minute execution. Orton on the other hand runs a stellar 4-minute offense, going all the way back to early last season. I remember watching him and thinking that the 4-minute offense would be the first component of this offense that he would master, he just seemed to have complete control. 2010 looks to be more of the same, and even better in some respects. However, both Peyton and Orton need to be prepared to run both offenses as this game could very likely come down to who scores last, and how they do it. A quick scoring drive at the end of each half won't help much if the other guy is left with enough time to score, as they both run the 2 minute well, so both of them will need to rein it in and be patient if the need arrives. This is also where my final "game factor" comes in, because I think the O-line that pass blocks the best in these situations will be the team that comes out on top at the end. And, I actually favor Denver's OL in this matchup.
#1: Special Teams must keep the start of each series in neutral territory or better. This is an area where we will need to see improvement or else Indy will leverage a small advantage into a wide discrepancy by the end of the game. Without their help, Denver could be out early.
#2: Robert Ayers. It is obvious that if he can pressure Manning, it could make a huge difference, but additionally we need his speed and strength against the off tackle runs, and slowing down Manning in the Red Zone. This means he won't get many reps off, which means he will be pushed to his physical limits. But he could singlehandedly swing the advantage over to Denver early.
#3: End of Game Pass protection. I'm not calling for a shoot out (per se), but I do think these two teams will be punching and counterpunching as this game comes to a close. To that end, how they choose to protect their QB, and how well they execute that protection could determine who scores last, since I suspect that that will be our winner. Again, this isn't just about execution, but about choice in protections as well. Shrewd playcalling will be essential, getting enough guys into routes, but maintaining line integrity (on two lines that will see their share of struggles sunday), and McDaniels and Orton will be going up against the goliath of shrewd playcalling. They will definitely have a chance to earn their stripes