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Wednesday, January 1, 2014
If the Broncos play... the Colts

By Jeff Legwold

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will spend the rest of their postseason bye week cleaning up some loose ends with some football self-examination. But they will also have to work through some what-if scenarios along the way.

Overall, the Broncos were 3-3 this season against teams in the AFC’s playoff field, with losses to the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers.

So, with that in mind, here’s a look at how they match up with each of their three possible divisional round opponents. First up: the Colts.

How it happens: Colts beat the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday and the Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Chargers Sunday.

Be ready for the rough stuff: After six weeks of defenses largely playing in off coverages against the kind of size the Broncos put in the pass pattern, both at wide receiver and tight end, the Colts were the first team of the season to really challenge the Broncos pass catchers.

And it worked in a 39-33 Indianapolis win on Oct. 20. The Colts defensive backs were aggressive and repeatedly challenged the Broncos receivers at the line of scrimmage and it certainly affected the timing of the Broncos’ high-end offense. The Broncos receivers were visibly frustrated throughout the game.

Others then followed suit with at least some success in the weeks that followed, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chargers and Patriots. The Broncos will have Wes Welker back in the lineup in the postseason, so that will help at least some. But overall the Broncos receivers have to quit looking for flags and understand things get rougher in the postseason and penalties are hard to come by in any situation where the ball is contested.

They will have to keep the Colts defensive backs’ hands off of them and attack the ball in the air. The Broncos offense can't be the high-end sports car that only runs great when conditions are perfect.

Old acquaintances: Welker would likely have to win a matchup with Colts defensive back Darius Butler. Butler lines up as a safety at times in the Indianapolis defense as well as at cornerback at others. The Colts repeatedly matched Butler on Welker earlier this season -- the two were teammates in New England in 2009 and 2010, so they know each other well.

Welker is one of the league's best at setting up a route later in the game by what he did earlier in the day. He's always thinking a few moves ahead. Butler, after countless practice battles, knows what Welker likes to do in particular situations. And Butler had things in hand in the first half of the game this season, but Welker shook loose for six catches for 93 yards in the second half.

Roll up the sleeves: There is no question the Broncos have dropped a fast-paced, pass-first attack on the league that has carved out a significant slice of the league's record book. But the Broncos have to be willing to pound the ball at times against defenses like the Colts' 3-4 look. The Colts essentially dared the Broncos to run with two deep safeties much of the time in the earlier meeting yet the Broncos couldn’t consistently make room against seven-man fronts for the most part.

The Broncos, throughout a postseason when defenses are going to be all-in against the Broncos’ passing attack, will have to be patient at times and put the ball and their offensive fortunes in the hands of the running backs. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball have to be up to the challenge when it arrives and the Broncos linemen have to come out of the pass sets from time to time and be ready to move people off the ball when it's required.

Hold their ground: The Broncos played out of their three-wide receiver set on offense all but eight snaps in the first meeting and to make the work consistently, the Broncos are essentially making the decision to block five on whatever the defense brings. Sure, they'll add a running back or a tight end from time to time, but for the most part the bet is their five offensive linemen can hold up and Manning can get rid of the ball before the trouble arrives.

Many defensive coordinators have long felt pressure from the outside, or extra rushers from the outside, was not the way to go against Manning. He easily sees those extra rushers coming on the outside because those players have to usually tip their hand at some point as the Broncos move the receivers around before the snap.

But the Colts repeatedly caved in the edges of the Broncos pass protection, particularly Robert Mathis, and did it quickly enough to put Manning in harm's way. The Colts had three of their four sacks against the three-wide. Mathis had a strip-sack of Manning, knocking the ball free, and it was a Mathis hit later in the game that aggravated Manning's ankle injury to the point where the quarterback missed some practice time in the weeks that followed.

The Broncos could go with two tight ends from time to time to push the Colts outside rushers away from Manning a bit more because the Broncos' formation is slightly wider. The Broncos have also showed a three-wide receiver, two tight end set against 3-4 defenses this season -- no running back. And while that essentially declares it to be a pass, it does force defenses into some difficult alignment choices to account for everybody.

Set the edge: Offensively the Colts repeatedly pounded away at the edges of the Broncos’ run defense and were able to consistently fold the Broncos edge players into the middle of the field.

Players like Robert Ayers, Shaun Phillips and Jeremy Mincey, as well as as Derek Wolfe if he makes back into the lineup, simply have to hold their ground and funnel things back to where the help is in the middle of the field. The Colts had several of their big runs when they pushed in the edge, including a 30-yarder by wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Cover the big guys: The Colts will also challenge the Broncos linebackers and safeties in pass coverage. In the first meeting Andrew Luck had nine completions to the backs and tight ends for 100 yards. The Colts were so focused on that matchup that when Luck and fullback Stanley Havili hooked up for a 20-yard catch-and-run play, that was half of Havili’s receiving yards for the season to that point.

Tighten the grip: The Colts were also aggressive in coming after Trindon Holliday in the return game. They made a concerted effort to keep Holliday running laterally and taking a swipe at the ball when they got to him. Their first or second tackler on the scene were aggressively swiping at the ball and Havili eventually ripped it away at one point. Since that game Holliday has had some ball security issues, including six muffed kickoffs or punts -- the Broncos have lost possession on one of those. The postseason is where mistakes on special teams always seem to crater somebody’s best-laid plans along the way. Holliday must be more reliable with the ball than he’s been of late.