'They know how to win'
When the Colts meet the Broncos on Sunday, the game will revolve largely on the ability of the Colts' offense to find success against a Broncos defense that kept Cam Newton and the potent Panthers offense in check.
Colts quarterback Andrew Luck sees largely the same Broncos group and scheme that he saw last year when they met in Indianapolis.
“[They're] tough, physical, good," Luck said. "Really good players all around the field. Obviously they’re a winning group. They know how to win. Well coached. I think [Defensive Coordinator] Coach [Wade] Phillips does a heck of a job everywhere he’s been. Certainly great pass rushers, really good cover guys. Really there’s no weakness on the defense.”
Head coach Chuck Pagano, who is 3-1 against the Broncos as a head coach, views the Broncos' defense in the same light. From Derek Wolfe all the way back to T.J. Ward, Denver's defense poses matchup problems for an opposing offense.
"It’s obviously an athletic, physical, tough, attacking, swarming defense," Pagano said. "They’ve got talent front to back. The edge pressure that you get, the way that they run to the football, the linebackers are sideline to sideline, and the secondary is as good a unit as there is in the National Football League. It’s very, very difficult to generate movement inside and try to get something going in the run game. They do a great job there. They’ve got great edge setters in [DeMarcus] Ware and Von [Miller]. And then Shaq [Barrett] comes in and [Shane] Ray comes in. They’re deep. They’ve got a ton of talent and they’re extremely well coached. They’re disciplined and they fly around. They’re a physical, physical unit."
If the Colts are to find success this week, they'll need to get strong contributions from tight ends Dwayne Allen and Jack Doyle and wide receivers T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett. The return in focus on involving the tight ends in the passing game is "incredibly important," so that the offense can "attack defenses in multiple ways." But the impetus for a solid offensive attack begins and ends with the speedy receiving corps.
"They’re certainly taking the next step," Luck said. "They’re great guys to play with. They’re athletic. Obviously Donte is very big, on the bigger side, and Phil is maybe on the smaller side. Phil can run like the wind. Donte did a great job, made some big plays. Obviously, everybody just about knows what T.Y. can do in this league. And those guys are making it hard to just focus on T.Y. as a defense"
A challenge on defense
As the Colts head into Denver, they'll try to shut down Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and the rest of the Broncos' receiving corps with a banged-up secondary. Star cornerback Vontae Davis continues to miss time with a medial right ankle sprain and both Darius Butler and Clayton Geathers are sidelined, as well. Against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the situation only got worse for the Colts. Rookie safety T.J. Green left the game with a knee sprain and cornerback Patrick Robinson left with a concussion. For the rest of the game, former Broncos safety Mike Adams lined up alongside Winston Guy, Darryl Morris and Rashaan Melvin.
Stopping the Broncos' offense with that cast won't be an easy task for the Colts, which Pagano admitted on Wednesday.
"Yeah, it’s going to be a challenge," Pagano said. "It was a challenge and it’ll be no different this week. Got a talented, talented group on that side. Quarterback [Trevor Siemian]'s going to do a great job and those guys are matchup issues for your starters when you’re healthy. And when you have some guys in there that haven’t played, it’s even more of a challenge. We’ve got to do a great job up front. We’ve got to be able to have some early down success and try to get them in third-and-long situations and be able to put some pressure on the quarterback with our four guys up front and try to force the ball out and try to take some of that pressure off those guys and try to mix some things up and do some different stuff. It’s going to be one heck of a challenge."
The Broncos showed plenty of faith in Siemian against the Panthers, and he'll try again Sunday to get the ball to Sanders, Thomas and Co. in space. Pagano had nothing but good things to say about the young quarterback after he went 18 for 26 with 178 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in the opener against Carolina.
"I saw a young man that looked like he’s been playing for a long time," Pagano said. "He’s mature beyond his years. I think he managed the game well. I think he made good decisions. There’s a couple plays that he probably would love to have back, but he went through his reads, he went through his progressions. He’s got arm talent. Obviously he’s bright and he gets them in the right play. Again, he was very efficient. He was accurate. He’s athletic enough to extend plays. He’s a perfect fit, is what I saw, for Coach Kube’s [Gary Kubiak] system and it reminds me of all the times I’ve had to face Coach Kubes and that offense. They do a great job and it’s a great system. It’s extremely difficult to defend, and Trev, he did a nice job and looks like they got a guy there that’s more than capable."
Perhaps more important to the Broncos' hopes of winning Sunday's game is how running back C.J. Anderson performs. He shot out of the gate against Carolina with 139 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. With the Broncos down 17-7, Anderson helped bring them back. He'll look for a big day against the Colts, who gave up 116 yards on the ground against the Lions.
"They do such a great job with their system and the way that they run the football and the way that they block up front," Pagano said. "They've got a great offensive line and they've got great runners. [RB C.J.] Anderson is one heck of a back. He's strong, he's compact, he's powerful, he's got great vision and he's got a great jump-cut. He hits his track. He takes his steps, puts is foot in the ground and he's north-and-south."
Replicating past success
If the Colts are going to win their third straight game against the Broncos, they'll need to replicate their performance from last November's win. Indianapolis jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half as they played sharp football.
"We’ve been able to come out and be efficient early," Pagano said. "Last year we played well early and then we got up and kind of hung on, if you will. We were able to eke out that win. But you’ve got to play early and we’re gonna have to do this same thing."
That fast start was somewhat of an anomoly for the Colts, who said this week they're tired of the slow beginnings. Though the team has shown a propensity for roaring back, as they almost did against Detoit after being down 21-3, Pagano knows they must improve early in games.
"It's something that we need to get fixed and get fixed in a hurry," Pagano said. "We're going to stop talking about it. It seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will. We've got to change that culture right now. It's kind of a last-minute culture and it's tough mentally. It's tough physically to have to do that over and over and over again. We know that we can finish, it's just a matter of coming out and executing and playing really good football. Go back to the game last year in Indy against these guys and we played well in all three phases and played great complementary football as soon as the first gun went off."
Yet while the Colts have enjoyed prior success against the Broncos, Luck knows that's no guarantee of anything during Sunday's game. This year's game has "nothing to do" with the Colts' 27-24 win in 2015, he said.
"We moved the ball decently," Luck said, "and converted some third downs and managed to score in the red zone and we obviously on the same token know it’s a totally different year and what’s happened in the past has absolutely zero bearing on this game."