Prime time is calling for the Indianapolis Colts, and a familiar foe awaits. To open up the 2014 NFL season, the Colts get the privilege of appearing on Sunday Night Football against the defending AFC champion Denver Broncos.
Quite the reward for going 11-5 and winning a playoff game in 2013.
Sure, last season the Colts were able to defeat the Broncos 39-33. Sure, it's possible that they could hang with the Broncos again, despite what Woody Paige of The Denver Post may think.
But to go on the road to face Manning and the Broncos, in their first real game since losing a 43-8 beatdown in the Super Bowl, is as difficult a task as there is in the NFL. Calling it a difficult task is quite the understatement. Who wants to face Manning after a humiliating loss? Who wants to face him after having all offseason to prepare? Now combine the two.
That is the task the Colts find themselves assigned to on Sunday night. But the Colts are no strangers to being underdogs. They weren't supposed to win against the Green Bay Packers in 2012 either, or the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks or Broncos in 2014.
No, they aren't the favorites. But they always have a chance.
So how can they turn that chance into performance?
Being a Score-First Offense
Conventional wisdom says that the way to beat a high-flying passing offense is to keep it sidelined. Run the ball, eat clock and keep that quarterback nailed to the bench.
Unfortunately, if a team's defense isn't stopping that elite quarterback when he is on the field, it doesn't really matter.
Enter Peyton Manning, whose efficiency per drive is historically good.
From 1998-2010, the Colts gained more than three yards more per drive (33.6) than the second-best team and scored touchdowns 3 percent of the time more (26%). With the Broncos, he's been even better, topping the league with both 35 yards per drive and scoring a touchdown on 31 percent of drives, per Pro-Football-Reference.
Which brings us back to a game against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 21, 2009, when the Colts visited Miami to take on the Dolphins. The Dolphins executed the traditional offensive strategy perfectly against the Colts, rushing for 239 yards, going 16 for 22 on third/fourth down and finishing with over 45 minutes of possession. But it was the Colts who left with the 27-23 win, becoming the first team since 1977 to win an NFL game with less than 15 minutes of possession.
We try to point our finger at this statistic and that statistic, but it's about scoring points, and winning football games. When you play a team against the Colts, when you get into the red zone you gotta score touchdowns, you can't kick field goals. I'm at a loss for words, really.
Offense is about scoring, something that offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton touched of this offseason when he redirected the narrative about the Colts being a "run-first" offense, per Mike Wells of ESPN.com.
Unless you have a defense that can trouble Manning and the Broncos offense consistently, a grind-it-out gameplan focused primarily on keeping Manning on the bench isn't going to work. A team has to score points, namely touchdowns.
Scoring touchdowns in the red zone has been an issue for the Colts over the last two years, and it's something that must be improved upon in 2014.
|Indianapolis Colts Scoring Inefficiencies|
|2012||34.98||1.80 (18)||.193 (18)||54% (18)|
|2013||32.91 (9)||2.08 (11)||.213 (16)||60% (7%)|
|Football Outsiders, Pro Football Reference|
Against the Broncos last season, the Colts made it to the red zone five times and scored a touchdown on four of them (80 percent conversion would be slightly higher than the Broncos' league-leading 79 percent).
One of the ways they scored in the red zone was with creative playcalling, which included one of the best plays Hamilton drew up in 2013. It was a play that boosted the Colts offense, which had punted three times and kicked a field goal prior to the play.
Prior to the snap, Darrius Heyward-Bey motioned toward the backfield as if he was going to fake an end-around. With him motioned the corners, as the outside corner moved across Reggie Wayne and the slot corner motioned across the line with Heyward-Bey. The motion caused the corner to naturally move toward the line of scrimmage, and when the Colts ran play-action, the corner bit and dove inside.
Then when Heyward-Bey stopped on a dime and ran back toward the outside, there was nobody between him and the end zone.
At the end of the first half, the Colts drove the length of the field in a two-minute drill and used a pick play against man coverage to get Coby Fleener enough separation to get to the pylon.
This time around, they'll need that same resolve and creativity in the red zone.
Defense: Keep it Simple, Stupid
In keeping Manning's efficiency down, the Colts have to make the Broncos one-dimensional. As I broke down yesterday, the Broncos love to run out of spread sets. Manning is notorious for watching his "numbers" on the offensive line, and if the Broncos have as many or more blockers than the Colts have bodies in the box, he's more than happy to hand the ball off.
If the Colts can manage to slow down the run while in nickel defense, they'll keep Manning from leaning on the run and make it simpler for themselves.
Against the pass, watch the Colts run a lot of press-man coverage. Not only does the press coverage help disrupt some of the Bronco's timing routes, but it also can help the corners. As Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer explained to Andy Benoit of The MMQB, press coverage can help simplify things for defensive backs:
If you’re a receiver, you can run a route with no one touching you as you go straight down the field. Or you can have somebody lined up right on top of you and now you have to think about beating that man inside, outside, having leverage, getting up the field—and then you’re trying to run that same route? Receivers every single time will say ‘I want free access.’ And quarterbacks will say the same thing.
And really, with bump-and-run, if I’m a receiver and I release inside, 85% of the time it’s going to be an inside route. If I’m bumping and running you, you’ve predetermined your route to only four routes: a curl, a dig, a slant or a post. If you release outside, same concept. So [a pressing] defensive back, as soon as he clarifies the release, he’s gone from eight routes to defend to four.
Against the Broncos in 2013, you could see this in action.
You can see Vontae Davis lined up in press in both of the plays diagrammed below. On the top one, Demaryius Thomas releases inside and runs a skinny post. On the bottom one, Thomas releases outside and runs a fly route down the sideline.
On both plays, Davis sticks to Thomas' hip and isn't worried about him cutting back across Davis' body. Davis can stick to the hip and just wait for an inside cut, or none at all. On both plays, Davis forces deep incompletions.
The team will also need to keep the blitzing at a minimum. The Colts enjoy blitzing, but Manning enjoys burning them. As Marcus Dugan of Colts Authority pointed out, the Colts only blitzed on 23 percent of their plays against Denver last year, down 10 percent from their season-long average as reported by Pro Football Focus.
Simplicity and execution are the keys against Manning. There was a time in his career when exotic zone blitzes fooled him, but he's learned ways to counter that, namely by operating a no-huddle and forcing the defense to simplify their blitzes. The Colts need to get pressure on Manning, but they have to be smart about it.
Pick your spots wisely, and execute when those spots are chosen. Then, the Colts might just be able to add another improbable upset to the ever-growing list.
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.