1. Last year the Colts successfully applied pressure on Peyton Manning, tallying four sacks, and it rattled him the entire game. With no Robert Mathis, how will the Colts try to generate pressure on Manning?
The absence of Robert Mathis, in my opinion, could be the biggest difference in this game. Not only was he great last year (leading the league with 19.5 sacks), he was pretty much the only reliable pass rush option the Colts had. This year, the Colts will have to play without him for the first four games, and the most noticeable his absence will be is this Sunday against Peyton Manning. Ideally, the pass rush will come from Bjoern Werner, but last year's first round pick had a rough rookie season and I'm still uncertain about him despite a very impressive training camp and preseason. The Colts probably won't do a ton of blitzing against Peyton Manning (because doing so isn't smart for defenses) and will hope that their pass rush can come primarily from their linebackers. The hope is that Bjoern Werner will step up, but if that doesn't work the Colts will likely have to turn to blitz packages - which, against Peyton Manning, is a very dangerous game to play.
2. What is the Colts' injury situation on the offensive line, and how much faith do you have in those who might start?
The biggest concern with the injuries on the offensive line is in regards to the depth, though that doesn't mean the starters are without questions. The two tackles of Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus are reliable (although Cherilus had a shaky preseason), but like in past years it's the interior of the line that has questions. Second round draft pick Jack Mewhort will start at left guard, and while I think he'll be a solid player I am certainly expecting some rookie mistakesthis Sunday. Hugh Thornton is starting at right guard and there's actually a lot of optimism for him after a bad rookie year in which he started at left guard. He's got experience now, is in his more natural position, and looked good in preseason. The biggest question among the starters is at center, as we still don't know who will start. Khaled Holmes is the number one center, but he's questionable and only returned to practice this week after missing several weeks. His backup, undrafted rookie Jonotthan Harrison, had an impressive preseason but also was dealing with an injury (though he'll be ready Sunday) and, again, is a rookie. I think it'll probably be A.Q. Shipley starting Sunday, who the Colts just signed earlier this week. Shipley was with the team in 2012 and started some games at center there, and he's a solid option. I don't think this line will be as bad as it was last year, but it won't be good either. And as for the depth? Well, let's just say that if any of the starters gets injured on Sunday, the Colts will be doing some shuffling to adjust and it would not be a good thing at all.
3. How has Hakeem Nicks looked in a Colts uniform? Which of Andrew Luck's weapons should the Broncos be worried about?
Nicks has looked good so far with the Colts in the preseason. Especially in the second preseason game against the Giants, Nicks was the team's number one receiver due to other guys behind held out and he played very well. I'm optimistic that we'll see a Nicks that is better than the one we saw in the past few years with the Giants and I think he'll have a good season. That said, he's the third receiver on the Colts behind T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne. Obviously we know that Reggie has had a terrific career, and despite the fact that he's coming off of a torn ACL and is 35-years old, he looks terrific running on that knee and cutting and it's absolutely the expectation that he'll step right in and be a key possession receiver and favorite target for Andrew Luck. The biggest weapon the Colts have, however, is T.Y. Hilton. He's a speedster who can burn players deep and is a big-play guy, but last year he also showed that he could be more than that when he was essentially the Colts' only legitimate receiving target with Wayne out. Hilton had a great year last year and there are huge expectations for him this year. He's the guy the Broncos should really pay attention to in the passing game, because he's not only the Colts' best receiver, he's also the guy who has helped to turn around games in big comebacks with Andrew Luck (see the comeback wins over the Texans or Chiefs in the playoffs last year for examples).
4. What are your expectations for Andrew Luck in 2014?
Expectations for Andrew Luck are huge in 2014. You might have seen some in the national media already ranking him as a top-five quarterback and as elite this offseason, and while I think that he's not quite there yet, there's every reason to expect he'll get there this year. He's got a terrific cast of weapons to work with in Hilton, Wayne, Nicks, and tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, and he's entering his third year in the league too. The Colts offense should be more geared around Luck than it was last year (when they were way too stubborn about running the ball), and if the offense is opened up then Luck will have a great year. As long as the play calling doesn't stand in his way, it's perfectly reasonable to expect him to finish in the top three or five in the MVP voting this year. Luck isn't quite elite yet, but most people expect him to get there this season.
5. What is your prediction for the game, and who do you think will perform particularly well on the winning team?
My prediction? Colts 31, Broncos 38. I do think that this game will be closer than many expect and I totally think the Colts will be competitive, but I think the loss of Robert Mathis will prove to be huge and the biggest difference in this game. Peyton Manning is going to make plays anyway, but if the Colts can't pressure him it's going to be even worse. I think the Colts will put up some points (either because they come out of the gate passing or because they get behind and have to air it out), but I don't think they're going to win this game. Not in Denver without Robert Mathis against PFM.
Big thanks to Josh for taking the time to answer our questions! Follow him on Twitter at @Coltsfanwilson.
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