Week Fourteen Preview: Broncos at Colts

The Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts have significant history between one another. Whether it is nail-biting, smash-mouth-style games played in snowstorms, or playoff blowouts featuring Peyton Manning throwing about a gazillion touchdown passes to then-Colts wide receiver Brandon Stokley, some of the most memorable games for these modern Colts have been against the Broncos.

This Sunday, they renew their rivalry with some new faces.

Gone are head coaches Tony Dungy for the Colts and Mike Shanahan for the Broncos. Replacing Shanahan is the brash and cocky Bill Belichick protege in Josh McDaniels. The new head coach in Indy is the soft-spoken, even-keeled Dungy disciple that is Jim Caldwell. Both have different approaches to the game. Both have gotten a lot out of their football teams of late. And while some players are new to this party, like Brian Dawkins and rookie Knowshon Moreno, other players are very familiar with this rivalry, but are now "playing for the enemy"; namely the before mentioned Brandon Stokely and defensive tackle Darrell Reid. Both play for Denver now.

For the Colts, the lone "defector" in the rivalry is former-Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. He is now coordinating the Colts defense, and doing a great job.

With the Broncos regaining their form after dropping four straight, this game figures to be like any other match-up the Colts had had to deal with this year: Hard and physical.

The Broncos are a bit of an enigma in that you aren't quite sure what you are going to get when you play them, and that is necessarily by design. During their 6-0 start, they seemed to have a lot of breaks go their way, with the incredibly lucky Brandon Stokley tip-catch-TD at the beginning of the year to beat the Bengals as the best example of said breaks. When they lost four in a row, they seemed to get exposed a bit. Their only meaningful road win was a 43-23 victory over the Chargers, but that win was later avenged by the Chargers utterly dominating the Broncos 32-3. They righted their ship, somewhat, by beating a banged-up Giants team and then later feasting on the small children that litter their division (namely, the Kansas City Chiefs).

In terms of standard stats, the Broncos defense is tied with the Colts, giving up exactly 16.8 points per game. The Broncos have 34 sacks, are about even with the Colts in terms of run defense, and sport a dangerous return threat in Eddie Royal.

The big reason the Broncos are 8-4 is their defense. Though Josh McDaniels has done a good job with a Denver team many felt would only win 3 games this year, the fact is McDaniels has nothing to do with the Broncos defense. He doesn't coach it, scheme it, or call plays for it on gameday. Mike Nolan, the current Broncos defensive coordinator and former head coach of the 49ers, runs Denver's D.

The standard stats for the defense are impressive, but when you factor in shake n bake's ever lovable, huggable DVOA stats, the Denver defense is top notch. They are ranked #4 in DVOA.

Meanwhile, the Broncos offense is ranked 21st in the league using standard scoring stats (20 points per game) and 19th in DVOA. The also rank in the bottom half of the league on third down completion percentage.

OK, those were the stats. now, we move to the keys:

  • A key match-up in the game is between Denver's outstanding left tackle, Ryan Clady, going up against all-world defensive end Dwight Freeney. Clady is as good as they come. But, then again, so were potential future Hall of Famers like Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones. Freeney routinely ate those guys for lunch, and unless Denver plans to give Clady help he could be another "skull on the pile" for Freeney. Gil Brandt of NFL.com has a write-up on this match-up.
  • Pressure on Denver Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton is very key. Last year, Orton (who played his college ball at Purdue following Drew Brees leaving for the NFL and just prior to Curtis Painter's tenure) walked into the grand opening of Lucas Oil Stadium and lit the place up. He was able to do this because his pocket was clean and he was rarely, if ever, pressured. That, and he had Matt Forte galloping all over the field for him. The Colts cannot allow Orton to gain any kind of comfort zone. They must get into his face, and pressure him into mistakes.
  • The other key match-up for the game is Peyton Manning v. Brian Dawkins and the Broncos secondary. The DBs in Denver are rather geriatric by NFL standards. Dawkins has been in the league 14 years. Starting corner Champ Bailey has played for 11 years while nickel corner (and longtime Colts nemesis) Ty Law, who signed with the Broncos a few weeks ago after a long absence from the NFL, has played 15 years. Denver will likely look to mix coverages, allowing their corners to play one-on-one with safety help against Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. This is the tactic the Patriots used a few weeks ago. This means players like Pierre Garçon and Austin Collie must continue to step it up. Denver coach Josh McDaniels acknowledged the development and growth of Garçon and Collie is a recent press conference they have as part of Colts.com's weekly Colts Up-Close, Online Edition.

As always, the Colts must take the field this Sunday against a hungry, playoff situated team that is looking to solidify their post-season chances. Just like most other "experts," I too am very surprised by Denver's current 8-4 record. But, you have to give them credit. I personally think much of the credit should go to Mike Nolan, but McDaniels deserves some props for hiring Nolan and for making some strong personnel moves this off-season along with new Broncos GM Brian Xanders. 

Obviously, there are elements of McDaniels personality and coaching style that leave one feeling that he is a little bit of a punk. Though we've been bashing him for a few weeks now, Yahoo! Sports "expert" Michael Silver did write an interesting article this week detailing how "ugly" McDaniels has acted and carried himself this season. However, despite the slime trail McDaniels seems to leave behind him, you cannot discount that he has done a better job with the 2009 Denver Broncos than Mike Shanahan did with the 2008 Denver Broncos.

I recently said in this Mile High Report FanPost that Nolan was able to take a defense with, roughly, the same players that Mike Shanahan had and transform them into a top flight D.

Turns out, I was wrong.

According to Broncos fans (and it's reasonable to trust them on this), only Elvis Dumervil, Champ Bailey, and D.J. Williams are holdovers starting from last year's defense. Everyone else appears new, and they are buying in to the Broncos "Pats West-style" 3-4 defense.

Many thanks to Broncos fans at MHR for an excellent series of FanPosts, allowing communities from both blogs to interact. In the three FanPosts created (two on MHR, one here) we had close to 700 comments from Broncos and Colts fans alike with much of the discussion focused solely on football and the game itself.

In fact, our FanPost had less trash talk than the Tweets between Raheem Brock and Darrell Reid.

These Q&As between writers and readers might one of the best weeks we've had with another blog all season. Special thanks to ANGELSFAITH and John Bena.

This should be a hard fought game between two teams who might meet again in the post-season. We shall see.

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