That’s what you’d be led to believe if you paid attention to the radio shows and newspapers this week. Sports journalists who are qualified in creating a narrative and perpetuating it instead of analyzing football have spread the notion that the Colts provided a blueprint for the rest of the league for stopping the Broncos offense. The coaches film shows a different perspective, however.
Before we dive into the film, let’s look at the numbers from the game. To put things in perspective, the number-2 scoring offense in the league this season is averaging 30.4 points per game. The Broncos scored 33 points against the Colts (it might have been 40 if Ronnie Hillman didn’t fumble at the goal line in the 4th quarter). For the record, the Tom-Brady-led Patriots haven’t scored 33 points once this season. Additionally, the Eagles rack up 425.3 yards per game, ranking them third in the NFL. The Broncos finished with 429 total yards on Sunday night. Yeah, that’s some blueprint.
However, it would be ignorant to suggest that the Colts didn’t create some problems for Denver’s offense. So how exactly did they do this? They followed some of the suggestions we provided just a couple of weeks ago.
First, the Colts got pressure on Peyton Manning. Not overwhelming pressure, but enough to prevent him from operating as smoothly as he has all season. Aside from the 4 sacks, the Colts forced Manning to get rid of the ball early. This is a bit of a paradox, because what makes Manning so good is his ability to read a defense quickly and get rid of the ball even quicker. Yet there is a difference between Manning getting rid of the ball quickly on his own terms, and forcing him to get rid of the ball. Collapsing the pocket and getting immediate pressure prevents him from going through all his progressions, leaving him throwing the ball to the best option at the time instead of to the perfect read.
Second, the Colts mixed up coverage. They didn’t disguise a ton, but they weren’t predictable. They played a lot of 2-man coverage (that’s man coverage underneath with 2 safeties over the top). This allowed them to jam Denver’s receivers knowing they had help behind them, which disrupted routes, threw off the timing of the offense and gave Indy’s fast pass rush an extra split second to get to Manning. The Colts didn’t quite shut down the Broncos receivers, but they created enough of a problem to slow down this well-oiled machine.
Third, the Colts stole possessions by creating turnovers: an INT, a strip on special teams, a strip at the goal line, and a sack-fumble resulting in a safety.
Fourth, the Colts scored 39 points. As we said a few weeks ago, it isn’t about shutting down the Broncos offense as much as it is about limiting their points just enough so as to allow your offense to outscore them.
The most important thing to remember about football is that it’s a game of matchups. This is the most glaring reason that the Colts strategy for attacking the Broncos offense isn’t a blueprint. It only “worked” because of THEIR personnel. Most other teams can’t play the same way.
The Colts are a very fast defense. This allows them to track the ball quickly in coverage, break up more passes and limit yards-after-catch. They can also stick with Denver’s athletic receivers just a bit better than other teams can. Most other defenses couldn’t successfully play as much man coverage as the Colts did.
Furthermore, Indy’s speed allows them to get to the quarterback quicker. Their d-line stunts aren’t slow developing, and they can win one-on-one matchups right away, again disrupting the smoothness of the Denver offense.
The last thing their speed does is help out in the run game. Because the Broncos have so many dangerous weapons in the passing game, defenses have no choice but to honor those weapons. This leaves a lot of 6-man boxes, with safeties and nickel corners looking for the pass first. This was the case on Sunday night. The only difference was that Colts safeties Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry have the speed to come down late against the run with effectiveness. Open running lanes vanished before Broncos running backs could get more than a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This effectively allowed Indianapolis to account for the pass and the run simultaneously.
This brings us to the Broncos’ own contributions to their “lackluster” 33-point performance. Knowshon Moreno is a power back who did not have the speed to take advantage of these 6-man boxes and open running lanes. By the time he got into the clear, Colts safeties were right on top of him. This is where he limits Denver’s offense. Going to Ronnie Hillman earlier might have been a better alternative for the Broncos – although his 4th-quarter fumble showed exactly why Denver was hesitant to turn to him so quickly.
It’s also tough to ignore the Broncos’ 5 drives after the Robert Mathis sack-fumble-safety in the middle of the game that led to absolutely nothing (18 plays, 43 yards, 1 first down, 4 three-and-outs, and 5 punts).
For whatever reason, Manning started forcing passes to the outside after the Mathis sack. Uncharacteristically, he threw into double coverage. Even in one-on-one situations, his downfield passes just died in mid-air, failing to reach his receivers. This led to terrible ball placement and a plethora of incomplete passes. For whatever reason, his arm suddenly looked dead and his passes fluttered through the air. It’s too early to tell if this is a legitimate problem. It could have just been the result of fatigue, muscle stiffness after the hit, or something entirely different – but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
However, where Manning did fail the Broncos most was in his inability to utilize Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas on the inside. Twice on those 5 drives in the middle of the game, Manning forced balls to the outside when he had Thomas and Welker wide open underneath in the same vicinity for easy pitch-and-catch first downs. He didn’t throw those balls. Had he done so, some of Indy’s momentum at the time may have been thwarted.
Part of the benefit of having players like Julius Thomas and Wes Welker is that they can consistently beat one-on-one coverage inside. Through tough stretches of games, they can create explosive plays from safe, short throws, quieting loud crowds and providing a calming effect on the quarterback. Manning failed to look in their direction until later in the game.
In the end, the Broncos still scored 33 points despite turning the ball over 3 times and having 5 drives in the middle of the game that did absolutely nothing. That’s how explosive they are and how quickly they can score. Peyton Manning is renown for his ability to make adjustments, both in-game, and throughout a season. It’s unlikely that he’ll make the same mistakes again, and even less likely that the same exact game plan will give the Broncos the same problems. And this is just another reason why the blueprint theory is ridiculous.
The more concerning issues for the Broncos are on the other side of the ball. If they can’t get those problems fixed, it doesn’t matter how well Peyton Manning and the offense play. The Broncos won’t win the Super Bowl without big adjustments on defense.