2015 NFL Playoffs: Colts at Broncos Preview

The 2015 NFL Playoffs roll on with a divisional round matchup between Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos and Andrew Luck’s Indianapolis Colts. The Colts at Broncos preview has what to look for on game day.

The divisional round tilt between the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos offers a rematch of their Week 1 clash. In that game, the Broncos raced out to a 24-0 lead but held off a spirited Colts rally to win 31-24. The Colts are coming off a 26-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, while the Broncos had a bye.

Both teams boast offenses with weapons capable of putting points on the board quickly, with quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning receiving top billing. Both defenses also feature elite players, some of whom may fly under the radar but nonetheless proved integral to their teams’ success this year.

When the Broncos Have the Ball

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season for Denver has been the emergence of running back C.J. Anderson. Montee Ball, expected to be the workhorse of this offense, sustained a groin injury in Week 4. However Ball was largely ineffective even when healthy, averaging 3.1 yards per carry before eventually landing on injured reserve in Week 10. Anderson took over as the starter for Denver in Week 12 against Miami, pounding the football for 167 yards and a touchdown, and thriving ever since. Presently, Anderson ranks third among running backs according to Pro Football Focus with an overall grade of 19.8* and also stands third in the league with a DVOA** of 17.9%. His arrival has helped ease the burden for an underperforming Peyton Manning.

Also stepping up his contributions this year, Emmanuel Sanders blossomed in his first season with Denver after taking over Wes Welker’s role as the clear second option in the passing game. Sanders nearly doubled his yardage total from last year while putting up career highs in nearly every receiving category. He stands third in the league with 480 DYAR, and fourth with a 27.3% DVOA**, and appears poised to emerge as elite receiver.

Manning’s struggles have been a focal point for the Denver offense the last two months of the season. The veteran earned a negative grade in seven games this season with six of them coming after Week 9*. Manning logged a QB rating of 88.7 during that stretch, compared to the 112.0 rating compiled in the first half of the season. However, he ranked third in the league this year with 1,433 DYAR and fifth with a 24.5% DVOA**, so while he may not be playing at his highest level, Manning is still very much a dangerous QB, particularly with so many weapons at his disposal.

Dave Archibald looked at how to pester Manning prior to the Week 9 matchup between the Patriots and Broncos and this video of Manning in last year’s AFC Championship Game shows how the Broncos scheme and talent can wear out a defense:

Decker 21 yard catch crossing route

 

Manning will have to contend with an underrated Indianapolis defense led by Vontae Davis. A first round selection of the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, Davis has always possessed the raw physical gifts to be an elite cornerback, but has lacked both consistency and maturity. However, since Indianapolis traded for him in 2012, Davis has shown signs of realizing his potential. This season, he hasn’t given up a TD, with opposing QBs sporting a paltry 38.8 QB rating when throwing against him, the lowest rating in the league. During their Week 1 matchup, he gave up one completion for just five yards. Expect Davis to shadow Demaryius Thomas throughout Sunday’s game.

When the Colts Have the Ball

It’s easy to draw parallels between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. Since his days at Stanford, Luck has been anointed as the “Next Peyton Manning.” (note: video link) While Luck has enjoyed a very good third season, leading the league with 40 TD passes, he still has work to do before reaching Manning’s level. Luck ranked 10th in the NFL in DYAR and 12th with a 9.3% DVOA**. He suffers from occasional mental lapses and poor decisions, but is also capable of making plays that Manning never could. Luck’s mobility gives his game another dimension that Manning’s lacks. Luck not only scrambles for yards and the occasional TD, but also uses his legs to extend plays, as he demonstrated against the Bengals:

WanVillainousGoa

 

In the third quarter, with the Colts up 3, the Bengals dialed up a safety blitz on second down to generate pressure on Luck. The QB sees the attack coming and steps up into the pocket, aided by his running back who gets just enough of the safety to disrupt the blitz. As Luck continues moving towards the line of scrimmage, past defensive end Carlos Dunlap, he spots slot receiver Donte Moncrief downfield. Moncrief has beaten his man and the single high safety across the field. Luck’s movement towards the line of scrimmage causes not one, but two Bengals defenders to crash towards him, respecting his ability as a runner. Luck knows he is under duress so he doesn’t stop to set his feet. As he delivers the ball, Dunlap manages to grab hold of Luck’s leg. Luck somehow manages to throw a perfectly placed ball ‒ on the move, while being taken to the ground ‒ for a TD to Moncrief. Plays such as this are what prompt observers to hold Luck in such high esteem.

Luck has had to carry the majority of the load on offense due to the Colts’ invisible run game, which ranks 27th in the league with a -15.9% DVOA**. Trent Richardson, who cost the Colts a first round selection in trade, has been nothing short of a disaster. He’s ranked 41st among NFL rushers in both DYAR and DVOA**, and watched most of the last few games from the sidelines as a backup. His snaps have decreased dramatically the last 3 weeks, including one lone play from scrimmage against the Bengals*.

Quietly making an impact for Indy, tight end Dwayne Allen has become the go-to target for Luck in the red zone, hauling in 8 TDs this season. He’s second in the league in DVOA with 25.2%** and also proved valuable in pass protection, ranked as PFF’s third-best pass-blocking TE with a 2.4 rating*.

The Colts offense faces an uphill battle, as Denver’s defense ranked 4th in the league in DVOA** ‒ third against the pass and fifth against the run ‒ while showing no glaring weaknesses. While Von Miller justifiably receives a lot of credit for his contributions, several unheralded Broncos play key roles. Opposite Miller, Brandon Marshall has had an outstanding season, ranking as PFF’s fourth-best 4-3 outside linebacker and the top-rated OLB in coverage*. He’s also the highest-rated OLB in PFF’s tackling efficiency*, which reflects the number of attempted tackles per miss. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is also enjoying a tremendous season; he’s PFF’s highest-rated CB* this year, and the NFL’s best CB in coverage* (27.2 rating) by a wide margin over second-ranked Vontae Davis (16.5).

Three Keys to a Broncos Victory

  • Continue to ride the hot hand of Anderson. The running back has been a revelation for Denver. The offense is far more efficient when running the ball effectively. Allowing Anderson to set the tone for the offense will put Manning in advantageous passing situations.
  • Stay away from Vontae Davis. The sixth-year player has been a true shutdown corner this season. The Broncos have enough weapons on offense to succeed even if Davis takes away Demaryius Thomas or Sanders. Spreading the ball around will be critical for Denver.
  • Keep Andrew Luck contained in the pocket. The Colts QB is most dangerous when he’s extending plays outside the pocket. This usually allows T.Y. Hilton or Moncrief to create separation deep. Keeping Luck in the pocket will limit the Broncos’ exposure to those explosive plays downfield.

Three Keys to a Colts Victory

  • Avoid third and long. This is where a running game truly helps an offense: keeping the down and distance manageable. The Colts need to avoid getting stymied on first and second downs running the ball, putting them in unfavorable third-down passing situations. TEs Allen and Coby Fleener could be major factors in the short passing game to help move the chains.
  • Make Manning Move. The 38-year-old QB isn’t exactly a statue in the pocket – he’s able to step up and avoid an oncoming rush – but his performance suffers while under duress. According to PFF, Manning rates at 20.2 when not pressured, but that number dips to -12.6 when pressured and -10.5 when blitzed*. Making Manning uncomfortable in the pocket will be important for the Colts defense.
  • Keep the game close. The Colts can’t afford to fall into a big hole early as they did in Week 1. Keeping the score tight into the fourth quarter will be vital for Indy to have a chance at pulling out the road victory.

Prediction

On paper, the matchups seem to lean heavily in favor of Denver. The Broncos’ elite defense can control Indy’s fairly one-dimensional offense, while the Denver offense appears to have the upper hand over the Colts’ defensive unit. Factor in those elements with the home field advantage for the Broncos, an outdoor team playing in the thin air of the Mile-High City, and it’s difficult to pick against Denver advancing to the AFC Championship Game.

Final Score: Denver 34 Indianapolis 24

All premium stat content courtesy of Pro Football Focus* and Football Outsiders** where noted.

Follow Joshua on Twitter @joshu_wa.

Joshua Soden has covered the emerging Jelani Jenkins, the fully recovered Rob Gronkowski, and previews the big games.

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