DENVER --This was always going to be a big day for rookie wide receiver Cody Latimer: his first regular-season NFL Sunday, against the Indianapolis Colts, the team he often saw on television during his matriculation at Indiana University. A national audience, certain to include many of his friends and fans from college, will be watching.
But the potential for Sunday got a bit bigger when veteran slot receiver Wes Welker was issued a four-game suspension this week. Head Coach John Fox said Wednesday that replacing Welker will be "by committee," and that could include the rookie at some point, especially if the Broncos decide to give Emmanuel Sanders a few snaps in the slot.
Latimer's potential and importance to the team was underscored Thursday when Ring of Fame wide receiver Rod Smith approached the rookie during practice, watched him and offered pointers.
"He worked on pad level with me, because I like to raise up. We worked on staying low, keeping your eyes straight ahead and getting in and out of cuts quicker," said Latimer. "He was giving me tips on just how to be a better receiver. It was something I needed."
It was the first time Latimer had met Smith, who said the Ring of Famer left him his number. Latimer said he planned to text Smith when he had questions. This could be the beginning of a fruitful relationship; Smith, as much of a teacher and mentor as he ever was in his playing days, appears to have found an eager new pupil.
The meeting reminded Latimer how many people with lengthy résumés are looking out for him, from receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Welker to the future Hall of Famer at quarterback.
"I've got a good support system around me. Even with Peyton (Manning)," said Latimer. "It's just great. I ended up with a great spot where I can take what they've given me, and transfer it to my game."
Even at this early stage in his development, the explosive Latimer is part of the solution for replacing Welker, which is where we begin the Three Keys:
|Get all the inside information on Sunday night's showdown between the Broncos and the Colts:
|• Five Key Matchups
• Breaking down Indy's offense
• Breaking down Indy's defense
• Calm mood before storm
• Miller, Harris Jr. pumped for return
1. IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO REPLACE A SLOT MACHINE.
Andre Caldwell saw the biggest uptick in snaps when Welker suffered his second concussion of the 2013 season last December, but he wasn't alone; tight ends Jacob Tamme and Virgil Green also factored into the Broncos' plans. This year, the experience of Sanders in the slot and the high ceiling of Latimer offer more options -- and the parts are interchangeable.
"That's kind of the way we developed our system," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "One of the ways I always explain it is that X, Y, Z, F is irrelevant. I could put blank circles here and we should understand who should do what just by our play calls and those guys have always just kind of approached that that way whether it be a rookie coming in or one of our veteran guys. That's why it wasn't really a big shell shock for anybody in that room."
The goal of everyone who works in the slot will be to improve the Broncos' Welker-less performance on third downs. In 2013, the offense converted 48.2 percent of its third downs before Welker's second concussion; that dropped by 9.2 percent after he left midway through the Week 14 win over the Tennessee Titans.
"I'd be lying to say this would be an easy transition," said Manning. "And I think sometimes when you have some adversity, it's a challenge and sometimes your top players can really shine for you, can really step up and show you why they are top players and that's what I'm expecting out of certain guys."
2. CORRAL ANDREW LUCK.
Because the Colts' third-year quarterback is so adept at escaping and making first downs with his feet -- and using his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame to bull his way through and around traffic to extend plays and give his receivers chances to get open -- reining him in will require a well-positioned swarm.
"He's a lot bigger than what I expected last year," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "I'm pretty sure he's worked harder and gotten bigger this year. I expect him to be -- unless there's somebody freakishly huge that can just one-arm him and throw him down, it's going to take a real cohesive unit to bring him down for real."
That means making sure the edge rushers don't get caught behind Luck, which would leave open space to the outside. Effective pressure on Luck involves as much power and misdirection as pure speed, which entails working to the inside, using stunts effectively and being patient enough to not get caught out of position.
The Broncos' first team succeeded at this in the preseason and looks for a redux Sunday. It will help that the unit is the closest it has been to full strength this summer, with Harris and linebacker Von Miller ready to go and only weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan ruled out for this week.
- PROTECT PEYTON MANNING.**
When is this not a key?
But this is the first regular-season game for this particular offensive-line quintet. It's the first NFL start for Orlando Franklin at left guard; the first pro start for Chris Clark at right guard. And it's the first start for running back Montee Ball, who flourished toward the end of the 2013 season in relief of Knowshon Moreno. Now he steps into the big chair, his apprenticeship complete, his blocking tested in practice by the one-on-one duels with first-team linebackers Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving.
It will help to avoid facing outside linebacker Robert Mathis, who begins a four-game suspension. His absence could have more impact on the game than the suspension of Welker, given that no Colt had even one-third as many sacks as Mathis amassed in 2013, with a career-high 19.5. Indianapolis will try and generate pressure from other sources, ranging from second-year outside linebacker Bjoern Werner to veteran free-agent pickup D'Qwell Jackson to the occasional blitz from their safeties and cornerbacks. How well the Broncos' pass protectors respond will help determine whether the offense can have a smoother night than it did last October at Lucas Oil Stadium.