The Denver Broncos open the 2014 regular season with a potential playoff preview. The Indianapolis Colts come to the Mile High City for a matchup between two of the best quarterbacks in the game today.
Everyone is going to be focused on Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck—for good reason. Manning is playing against the team he started his career with, while Luck is facing the legend he had to replace on the Colts roster.
Both teams have to be considered Super Bowl contenders, and this Week 1 contest could have implications much later in the year when playoff spots are seeded.
Broncos head coach John Fox has a great deal of respect for the Colts.
“[They’re] A tremendous team. They were in the playoffs last year. We watched a very competitive game in the playoffs against Kansas City, a team we’re very familiar with. They had 11 wins a year ago. One of those wins was against us at their place.” Fox concluded, “There’s a reason why we’re both playing each other on Sunday night.”
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 have been talking all offseason about having more balance on offense. This doesn't mean taking the ball away from Manning; it just means they could feature the ground game when in the lead.
More of the ground game means more from starter Montee Ball. The second-year back has taken over as the lead back for the Broncos after serving as a backup during his rookie season. Ball missed most of the preseason due to an appendectomy, but he was able to recover in time to get some valuable playing time in Week 3 of the preseason.
In the picture above we see a play the Broncos might use quite a bit this year. Notice how right guard Louis Vasquez pulls from his spot to help lead the way for Ball. We could see more guard play inside (pulling, traps) than we did last season. This style of blocking plays to Ball's strength of running inside.
The Broncos will be facing a Colts defense that ranked 26th in the NFL last season averaging 125.1 rushing yards allowed per game. Indy also allowed 14 rushing scores over 16 games in 2013.
During the Colts' Week 3 preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, they allowed Mark Ingram 46 yards on eight carries (5.8 yards per carry). To the Saints as a team, the Colts were gashed 35 times for 160 yards on the ground.
In the picture above we see the Colts' main run-stuffing linebacker, D'Qwell Jackson. On this play, the Saints get a guard to the second level of the defense. Jackson is able to quickly elude the blocker and get to Ingram right as he crosses the line of scrimmage.
If the Colts want to slow down Ball and the Broncos on the ground, then Jackson is going to need more plays like this.
When the Broncos Pass the Ball
In this picture we see the Broncos use a play-action fake to make a big play downfield. Notice how Manning's play fake to running back C.J. Anderson holds three defenders in place at various levels of the Houston Texans defense.
This second picture shows that Manning has released the ball to a certain spot. His intended target—Emmanuel Sanders—hasn't even come into the picture yet.
There he is! Sanders runs under the beautiful pass in stride as he clears two Texans defenders.
Sanders does the rest, and he runs the ball in for a 67-yard touchdown.
The Broncos are going to have a more vertical element to this offense because of the addition of Sanders. His role should be as the team's second target behind Demaryius Thomas. Sanders can move all over the formation, and he may be asked to play more in the slot since Wes Welker was suspended four games to begin the season.
In addition to deep shots, the Broncos will easily be able to dink and dunk their way down the field. Tight end Julius Thomas was a breakout player last year, and what he showed was just the tip of the iceberg. He creates mismatches every time he lines up, and Thomas should figure to be an even larger part of the passing game this season.
The Colts pass defense averaged 232 net passing yards allowed per game last year, good for 13th in the NFL. It did have 42 sacks (tied for 11th) last year, but its premiere pass-rusher, Robert Mathis, is going to miss this game due to a suspension.
When the Colts Run the Ball
Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton loves to run the ball. He wants the team to have a power-running identity, and that means Trent Richardson will lead the way on the ground.
Richardson was traded for last year as the Colts surrendered a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft to acquire him from the Cleveland Browns. He struggled with confidence and did not produce up to expectations in 2013.
The Colts like to run to the edge with extra blockers out front. In the picture above, Richardson gets set up to the outside of the formation. He's stopped for a minimal gain because one of the two blockers pulling gets knocked backward and almost loses his balance.
The Broncos have a strong group of defensive linemen, and they could give the Colts trouble up front.
Denver's rush defense was ranked seventh in the NFL last year, tied with Seattle, averaging 101.6 rushing yards allowed per game. The Broncos were strong against the run in part because their high-octane offense would get a big lead and force an opponent to abandon the run game earlier than planned.
There's a good chance their run defense could be better this year because of the improved talent on the defensive side of the ball.
When the Colts Pass the Ball
In addition to a strong run defense, the Broncos should have one of the best pass rushes in the game today. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware was arguably the biggest move for the team (or any other team) in free agency, and he'll work well opposite linebacker Von Miller.
In order to deal with the Broncos' pass-rushing duo, the Colts should use screen passes and draw plays.
The picture above shows Ahmad Bradshaw on a screen pass in Week 3 of the preseason against the New Orleans Saints. Luck draws the defense in, then he quickly darts the pass into the waiting arms of Bradshaw.
The Broncos must maintain their discipline when facing the Colts and their screen game. Bradshaw is a much different running back than Richardson, and he can make big plays quickly because of his speed.
Weapons like wide receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton—plus tight end Dwayne Allen—will also be used to move the ball through the air. Expect the Colts to test cornerback Chris Harris Jr. as he returns to the field after suffering a partially torn ACL in the playoff win over the San Diego Chargers last year.
Allen could also test linebacker Brandon Marshall in coverage. Marshall is filling in for an injured Danny Trevathan. He's an aggressive player with a mean streak, but he is nowhere near the player Trevathan is in coverage.
Broncos free safety Rahim Moore knows that it’s going to be tough going up against Luck because of his ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes.
“He’s talented. You look on film and study his idiosyncrasies, and it’s impressive. He looks like a guy that’s been in the league five, 10 years. He’s their franchise. It’s a great program. They’ve got a great defense. It’s going to be a great football. Sunday Night Football.” Moore concluded, “We can definitely expect their best for sure.”
This is going to be a fantastic game of epic proportions. If the Broncos win, it is a great way to start the first quarter of the season that features tough games against teams like the Colts and the Seattle Seahawks (Week 3).
Early-season conference supremacy is on the line. The Broncos want to win home-field advantage throughout the playoffs for the third year in a row.
Manning believes this game has a different feel because it’s at home instead of being at his old home of Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Yeah, I think it’s a little different playing here at home. Regular season, season opener, it doesn’t get much bigger than this aside from the postseason. I’ve always said opening day, opening night is a playoff-type atmosphere. I am tired of talking; I am looking forward to playing some real football.” Manning concluded, “We’re playing a really good football team, a playoff team, and it’s going to be a tough game but, yeah, I am looking forward to all those things and I’m excited football’s finally here.”
Manning versus Luck? Yes please! It’s must-see TV and a great way to end the first Sunday of regular-season football in 2014.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos unless otherwise noted. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.