How the Indianapolis Colts Can Slow Peyton Manning and the Denver Offense

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How the Indianapolis Colts Can Slow Peyton Manning and the Denver Offense
USA TODAY Sports

When a team is going to face the Denver Broncos, media covering that team (in this case, the Indianapolis Colts), often goes about writing a piece on "How to Stop the Denver Broncos." 

Unless you have a historically great defense, that probably isn't going to turn out very well. 

Stopping the Broncos and Peyton Manning is a nice ambition, but slowing them down is realistically as successful as one can hope to be. The Colts, for example, had about as good of a defensive performance as they did all year against the Broncos in Week 7, but Manning still managed to put up 33 points. 

The Colts, even with their additions, don't have a Seattle Seahawks-like defense. There's no evidence on which to claim that they can grind out a win against Denver. Especially not with their best defensive player—Robert Mathis—sitting at home. 

But that doesn't make them helpless, at least one would hope not. The Colts have spent a lot of money, and draft picks, to build the 3-4 defense that they so desired. Now, in Year 3 of the Grigson era, that defense has all the pieces they need, ideally.

But Peyton Manning is not your run-of-the-mill quarterback, and even if everything goes right for the Indianapolis defense in 2014, stopping Manning completely isn't going to happen. 

What may be possible is slowing him down. 

 

Beware the Run

While Manning and the Broncos offense will be ever known as a high-flying passing machine, the fact is that the Broncos were one of the leagues most efficient running teams in 2013, ranking 10th in rushing DVOA and sixth in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grades. 

But unlike traditional "running" teams, the Broncos don't succeed in the run game because of their big, mauling offensive line. Instead, the Broncos run based on the defense on the field, a classic Manning strategy. Shotgun draws, singleback sets; these are the kind of things that Manning's offense employs. 

NFL Game Rewind

The offense spreads into a three-wide set with the tight end lined up just a few feet to the left of the line. With six blockers and just six men in the box, the Denver offense is set. 

NFL Game Rewind

It's a zone run, and the whole line takes a step to their right as they explode out of the snap. Even the tight end, whose job will be to seal the outside linebacker outside, takes a step in before coming back outside to block Mathis. 

NFL Game Rewind

With the Colts being in nickel defense, there is no space-eating nose tackle to take up more than one blocker. Just one guard is needed for Cory Redding and Ricky Jean Francois, although Redding does get an extra shove by the center before he moves upfield to take care of Pat Angerer.

NFL Game Rewind

With one-on-one blocking throughout and the safeties too far from the line of scrimmage to do anything, Knowshon Moreno makes a couple cuts (including a jump cut behind one offensive lineman who was moving across the hole) and gains seven yards on the play. 

It's classic Manning, with a clear read prior to the snap and excellent execution by the offensive line. 

Without a clogging force in the middle (Josh Chapman will leave the field in nickel defense), the Colts have to attack the run head-on. Even if the defensive linemen hold their ground respectably, the linebackers won't be there to clean up the run; they'll be engaged with linemen.

Instead, two down defensive linemen need to quickly assess the run and attempt to penetrate and disrupt the play. With a lighter front, Arthur Jones and Cory Redding, the likely nickel linemen, will need to cause havoc, rather than just stand firm. 

If they can do that, the Colts can refrain from consistently bringing a safety into the box, giving Manning even more leverage in the passing game. 

 

Defending the Pass

Defending the pass against Manning is a much different beast. 

The Broncos offense relies on a number of bread-and-butter concepts they run to perfection, including pick plays, four verticals and "levels" concepts. 

When it comes to defending pick plays, there's not much scheme can do. According to Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, it's a matter of awareness and physical ability, per The Tacoma News Tribune's Todd Dybas: 

If he’s coming at me to do a pick play I’m going to try and get around him. I’m a get around him and get to my guy. If I blatantly see him I’m not just going to run into the guy and let my guy be wide open, I’m going to go around him and get to my guy, be athletic.

You hear that Colts defensive backs? Just be athletic. 

Chancellor would go on to discuss the importance of communication in defending pick plays and Manning's hurry-up offense as well:

Communication is key for the hurry up offense. We have to communicate across the whole board, no one can be off. As far as the defensive line, everybody has to be stout in their gaps; linebackers have to get the call across the board, and defensive backs especially we have to get the calls. If we’re in one high, two high, whatever we’re in, communication is key.

Outside of the classic four-verts and levels concepts that Manning has run for years, much of the Broncos offense relies on short, quick passes and yards after the catch. Communication and physicality at the line will be the Colts' best weapon against such plays, as well as sound tackling. 

This is one area where newly added D'Qwell Jackson can be of service. Jackson is a veteran leader who is one of the league's most versatile linebackers. With him and Jerrell Freeman in the middle of the defense, the Colts should have an easier time both identifying the correct zones and tracking down receivers quickly with solid tackling. Jackson is a very sound tackler, generally, and finished fifth among inside linebackers in Pro Football Focus' tackling efficiency.

When it comes to downfield passing, watch for the Broncos to use seam routes, both by TE Julius Thomas and WR Emmanuel Sanders, to keep the safeties pinned inside while Manning takes shots down the sideline at targets like Demaryius Thomas and Cody Latimer

The Colts (and the Seahawks) countered this last year by playing Cover 3 and Cover 1,  trusting their corners on the outside in one-on-one situations and bringing a safety down toward the box for man-to-man coverage of a tight end. 

Last season, Vontae Davis excelled in this role, shutting Thomas down for most of the day with phenomenal coverage. Greg Toler got beat a few times by Eric Decker down the sideline, and it will be an area heavily targeted by Manning. If the cornerbacks can handle their solo responsibilities and the defense get pressure on Manning, they might have a shot at forcing a few punts. Manning also isn't afraid to go after one-on-one coverage, so there may be some interception opportunities for the cornerbacks

NFL Game Rewind
Vontae Davis had his best game of the season against Thomas, consistently suffocating him with coverage.

Of course, getting pressure on Manning is always the key. The Colts made him uncomfortable last season with pressure, and it showed in a few of the Broncos' series. But now there is no Robert Mathis, and edge-rushers like Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden will have to step up. 

The Colts will also attempt to scheme pressure for Manning with blitzes by the inside linebackers. They mixed in some zone blitz looks in the preseason, with Jackson picking up a sack on Eli Manning through a zone blitz during Week 2 of the preseason. 

Historically, Manning has occasionally had issues with zone blitzes, as they can upset the timing of his plays while also adding another body to the pass rush. But one shouldn't get in a habit of trying to fool Peyton Manning either. It likely won't end well. 

In the end, it's about the players on the field. How well do they execute, especially in a hostile Denver, whose residents are ready to move on from a devastating Super Bowl? There is only so much that scheme can do. After that, it's up to the players. 

Who will step up to the plate on Sunday? The answer to that question may tell us quite a bit about the Colts' chances in 2014.

 

All statistics and snap counts come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. All training camp observations were obtained firsthand by the reporter unless otherwise noted.

Kyle is an NFL and Indianapolis Colts analyst for Bleacher Report and the editor-in-chief of Colts Authority. Follow Kyle on Twitter for more stats, analysis and general NFL analysis.

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