ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Defensively, the Colts are nothing if not aggressive. That is how a defense that Broncos Offensive Coordinator Adam gase describes as "very speedy" can best play to its strengths.
In the secondary, Colts Defensive Coordinator Greg Manusky doesn't settle for simple man-to-man coverage; he wants his corners to press at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of the opposing offense. This gambit carries inherent risks, but it's hard to quibble with the effectiveness to date; the Colts are one of two AFC teams with more touchdowns than interceptions, and have allowed one touchdown every 40.6 pass plays, the fifth-best rate in the NFL and well above the league average of one touchdown every 24.7 pass plays. (Denver's average is one touchdown allowed every 24.4 pass plays.)
"Well, as far as a receiver's standpoint, they're a man team. They'll come up, press you, make you beat them one-on-one," said Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. "And they've got some good defensive backs."
What the Colts' cornerbacks lack in star power, they make up for in quickness. And while Greg Toler and Vontae Davis are the starters and play the most snaps, Darius Butler has been the one most apt to make big plays, with six interceptions in 17 games since joining Indianapolis last season, including three that he's returned for touchdowns.
The matchup between Butler and Wes Welker bears watching because of their shared background as ex-Patriots; they played together in the 2009 and 2010 seasons and through the preseason of 2011 before the Patriots gave up on the 2009 second-round pick and released him. Butler is the prototypical slot cornerback in size; he's 5-foot-10 and 188 pounds. That makes him two inches shorter than Toler and 16 pounds lighter than Davis.
This season, Butler has also allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile a rating of just 56.8 on passes thrown in his direction, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and he hasn't permitted a touchdown. But he hasn't faced a challenge quite like the one Welker poses.
Whether Butler can make a big play might come down to the Colts' pass rush, which uses interior stunts and speed from outside linebackers Erik Walden and Robert Mathis to harass quarterbacks. The Colts' sack ratio of one every 11.9 pass plays is seventh-best in the league, but their rate of hurries (as measured by ProFootballFocus.com) is one every 2.42 pass plays, the best in the NFL.
Aggression on the front and back end has been the Colts' calling card, and that should continue -- even against Peyton Manning, who's carved up plenty of similar defenses in his 16-year career.
Manusky indicated Thursday that pressure will be the best way for the Colts to attempt to disrupt the timing between Manning and the Broncos' receivers. And with an offensive line that faces injuries to Orlando Franklin -- who has yet to practice this week -- this could be the Colts' best shot at knocking the Broncos from the unbeaten ranks.
"(Manning) can pick and choose who he wants to go to and when it comes down to it, if you get pressure in his face and he doesn't have that chance to go to the second or third read, then it's a great possibility you'll win the down," Manusky said. "So, pressure is part of it -- trying to get him off his spot and move his feet just like everybody you try to do."
Many have tried to do this to Manning. Few have succeeded. For the first time outside of the practice field, the Colts get their turn.
-- The Colts are 14th in stopping drives that get to third down, permitting drives to continue after 30 of the 76 third downs they've faced. This figure includes successful fourth-down conversions that followed the third downs, and is 1.24 percent better than the league average of 40.71 percent. (Denver ranks 10th in this metric; it limits opponents to a drive-continuation percentage of 38.27 percent).
-- You can run on the Colts; they're giving up an average of 4.6 yards per carry, seventh-worst in the league. The Colts are also seventh from the bottom in the number of running plays that move the sticks (one every 4.20 rushing plays); among Broncos opponents to date, only Dallas was worse (one first down every 3.84 runs). The league average is one every 4.69 runs.