Denver Broncos vs. Indianapolis Colts: Breaking Down Denver's Game Plan
This game is getting a lot of national attention, and every football fan should be glued to their televisions for Sunday Night Football. The return of Peyton Manning to Indianapolis has fans buzzing this week, especially since the Colts are considered one of the up-and-coming teams in the NFL.
After 14 seasons, 11 Pro Bowls, four NFL MVP Awards and one Super Bowl title with the Colts, Manning returns to Lucas Oil Stadium as the quarterback of the 6-0 Broncos. Denver has won 17 straight regular-season games, tied for the fourth-longest streak in NFL history.
The Broncos are tied atop the AFC West with the Kansas City Chiefs with a 6-0 record. The Broncos want to prove they are the NFL’s best, and this game against the Colts could be a playoff preview.
Denver’s offense is looking better than ever. Wes Welker (eight), Julius Thomas (seven) and Knowshon Moreno (seven) all have at least seven touchdowns this year. In NFL history, no other team has ever had that many players with at least seven touchdowns through the first six games of a season.
In fact, only twice since the merger has a team even had two such players. The 2005 Panthers (also coached by John Fox) had Steve Smith (seven) and Stephen Davis (seven). The 1975 Bills also accomplished the feat with O.J. Simpson (seven) and Jim Braxton (seven).
The Broncos are making history every week. Denver has scored 265 points this season, the most ever by a team through six games.
They have the number one passing offense in the league, averaging 360.7 yards passing per game. Manning does a good job of taking what the defense is giving him, and he has the patience to wait for the big play to open up downfield.
The Colts rush defense is next to last in the league. Their 31st ranked unit allows an average of 132.0 yards rushing per game. This could be a big day for the Broncos’ ground game, specifically Knowshon Moreno, as Denver seeks balance offensively.
Denver’s run defense is still 1st in the league after six weeks. They only allow an average of 69.8 yards rushing per game. This week they’re facing Colts running back Trent Richardson. He’s a talented back, but has only been averaging 3.1 yards per carry this season. If the Colts want to beat the Broncos, they’ll have to do it through the air.
Andrew Luck has done a great job leading the Colts since Manning left. Andrew Luck has never lost back-to-back starts. Among the 25 quarterbacks who have started at least 16 games since the start of 2012, Luck is the only one who has not lost back-to-back starts. The Colts are coming off a loss against the Chargers on Monday Night Football in Week 6.
On Wednesday, Manning gave us his thoughts on Luck. “There is not much that I need to add that hasn’t been said. He’s an extremely talented player that played as a rookie, which is not easy, but he certainly used that year—not only did he play well his rookie year, but he used it to his advantage to be even better this year. He’s off to a hot start. Our defense is in for a tough challenge. From an offensive standpoint, you’re dealing with their defense, which I think is plenty. I think [Defensive Coordinator Greg] Manusky does a great job. They’ve got different schemes, active linebackers and a secondary, a great pass rush. But you know you’re going to have to find some ways to score some points because their offense is capable of scoring a lot of points as well.”
Let’s take a look at how the Denver Broncos will attack the Indianapolis Colts on both sides of the ball.
When the Broncos Run the Ball
The Broncos should be able to have their way with the Colts on the ground. This could mean Knowshon Moreno is in for a big game on Sunday. He’s been the hot hand for the Broncos, and there’s no need for the team to go away from him.
Moreno leads the NFL in rushing touchdowns as defenses are too concerned with Manning and the passing game when the Broncos get into the red zone.
In the picture below, we see the Broncos with two tight ends on the field. Jacob Tamme is lined up to the left in a stack formation, while Julius Thomas is lined up in-line on the right side. As the ball is snapped it’s clear to see the defense drop back, fully expecting a pass from Manning. Moreno almost walks into the end zone.
Moreno will need a breather from time to time, and that’s when we should see more Ronnie Hillman. In this picture we see the Broncos in a passing formation, with three wide receivers on the field. Hillman is able to easily pick up nine yards to the outside.
When the Broncos Pass the Ball
Most teams don’t want to risk blitzing Manning. He has faced four or fewer pass rushers on 77 percent of his dropbacks this season, tied for the highest in the NFL. The Jaguars used such pressure on all but one of Manning's dropbacks in Week 6.
Playing back against Manning will only get the defense sliced up by the Broncos’ passing game. The Colts will have to take chances against Manning if they want to come out on top.
The Broncos will pass out of all sorts of formations. In the picture below, we see the Broncos in a jumbo package. Defensive tackle Mitch Unrein is lined up at fullback, and the Broncos are clearly giving a run-heavy look.
Manning executes the play fake, the defense bites hard, and tight end Julius Thomas is able to easily sneak into the end zone for a touchdown.
The Broncos are also going to be patient when looking for big plays downfield. They will be happy to throw short when defenses are playing off the ball.
However, when Manning sees single coverage on the outside, he will take a shot downfield. Here we see Demaryius Thomas break free down the right sideline early in the fourth quarter.
The safety in the middle of the field is occupied by both Welker and Julius Thomas. This leaves Demaryius Thomas in a one-on-one battle down the sideline. The play is good for a 31-yard gain.
When the Colts Run the Ball
There’s not much flash to the Colts’ ground game. They are an old school smashmouth team who loves to run downhill right into the teeth of the defense. Their battering ram is named Trent Richardson.
The Colts were able to trade for Richardson earlier this season, and many felt he was a perfect fit for the Pep Hamilton offense. Richardson has not really impressed during his time with the Colts. Since being traded to the Colts in Week 3, Richardson ranks 23rd in the NFL with 191 rush yards and hasn’t rushed for more than 60 yards in any game.
The Colts have little deception when they run the ball. Here we see tight end Coby Fleener motion from right to left with Richardson lined up in the I-formation. The ball is snapped and Richardson plunges into the three hole for a gain of four yards.
Running between the tackles is what Richardson does best. They will attempt to grind down the Broncos defense with Richardson so long as the game isn’t out of hand. This will keep Manning on the sidelines as the Colts are trying to control the time of possession.
They really run the ball to set up the play-action passing game.
When the Colts Pass the Ball
The Colts may use some trick plays if the opportunity arises. In the picture below, we see Richardson run the ball up the gut, but then he turns around to toss the ball back to Luck. This flea flicker is good for a 35-yard gain as Luck hits Reggie Wayne on a deep pass.
The system that Hamilton has in place is a traditional West Coast offense. However, there are some vertical elements to the scheme.
Second-year wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has plenty of deep speed. This earns him a defensive cushion before the snap. Defenders don’t want Hilton to run by them, so cornerbacks will play off the ball. Here we see Hilton adjust his route to a hook, easily getting open against the defense.
The Colts will take deep shots, but if defenses play back to prevent the big play, there are outlet receivers to look to underneath. Here we see the Chargers try to blitz Andrew Luck.
They are running vertical routes on the outside, and Wayne is running towards the seam to hold the safety. Fleener is able to easily get open on a jerk route to the outside.
Luck is incredibly bright, and he will almost always know where to go with the ball if he sees a defense is going to blitz. The Broncos will have to pick and choose how (and when) they blitz the young quarterback.
The Broncos defense gets a huge boost with the return of Von Miller. Miller’s biggest impact on the Broncos will be on third down. Since he was drafted in 2011, the Broncos have allowed opponents to convert 31 percent of third downs with Miller on-field and 41 percent with Miller off-field.
The Colts are going to have to account for Miller every time he’s on the field. Luck has been pressured on 284 dropbacks since the start of last season, 26 more than any other quarterback in the NFL during that time. Playing against pressure is nothing new for Luck.
On Wednesday, Miller commented on the challenges when facing the Colts. “It’s a huge challenge. They do a lot of stuff, a lot of unbalanced stuff. Very talented at the quarterback position. Andrew Luck is not easy; I think he’s broken a lot of tackles back there; he’s definitely hard to get down. They do a lot of stuff to try to confuse defenses. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy; if we can just play sound football, get after the quarterback and be a solid secondary with the front seven, I think we can do a good job.”
The Broncos are averaging 44.2 points per game so far in 2013, the most by a team through six games in NFL history. They’re averaging nearly two touchdowns more per game than the next best team (Cowboys – 30.5 points per game).
Against the Colts defense, we should see the Broncos score at least 35 points. However, Luck should be able to keep the Colts in the game with his arm.
The Broncos pass defense is going to have a real challenge facing Luck and his group of receiving weapons. The cornerbacks will be aided by the pass-rushers and the return of Miller.
The difference could be the strength of the Broncos’ ground game. This makes Knowshon Moreno a key player to watch on Sunday night. If he has a strong game, then the Broncos have a better chance of winning.
This is going to be a great football game, and it could be a shootout between two of the best quarterbacks in the league today. If the Broncos play like they have this season, then they should be able to come out with another road win.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
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