DENVER (CBS4) – If the Denver Broncos assume they’ll face the same Indianapolis Colts they topped in the season opener, they’re both right and wrong.
The pass-happy Colts are now even more reliant on quarterback Andrew Luck than they were early in the season.
In the Broncos’ 31-24 victory on Sept. 7, the Colts collected 20 passing first downs and managed just two on the ground. Granted, they fell behind 24-0 and played catch-up. But statistics four months later don’t lie: Indianapolis threw the ball 61 percent of the time in its last eight games, up from 58 percent in its first eight.
“The only thing different to me is they throw the ball even more,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said Monday. “It’s like seven-on-seven, so that is something we’re going to have to be ready for. (Luck) has been throwing the checkdowns to (running back Daniel Herron) a lot, so we’ve got to do a good job of wrapping him up.”
Luck, clearly, and Herron, who’s emerged as a playmaker in the last several weeks for Indianapolis, are two Colts that figure to factor heavily into Sunday’s game. Here’s a look at those two and three others who will play huge roles.
1. Quarterback Andrew Luck
Start with the obvious: Indianapolis won its division because of Luck, who led the NFL with 40 passing touchdowns and 4,761 yards, third-best in the league.
Whether with his legs or his arm, he accounted for roughly three of every four yards the Colts gained this season, and is arguably more responsible for the fortunes of his team than any player left in the postseason.
“What he’s accomplished may be better than any quarterback has ever accomplished early in a career to date,” Broncos coach John Fox said.
Indianapolis ranks 22nd in rushing offense and yards allowed on defense, planting enormous pressure on the passing game.
Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said Monday pestering Luck is the key to beating the Colts.
“Quarterbacks are average when you get a lot of pressure on them and you hit them and make them uncomfortable in the pocket. That’s what we’re going to try to do,” he said.
Of the remaining eight starting quarterbacks, Luck is about average when it comes to sacks. During the regular season, he was dropped once every 23 pass attempts. (In comparison, Seattle’s Russell Wilson was sacked once every 11 attempts, while the Broncos’ Peyton Manning went down just once every 35 attempts — contradicting the idea that mobility translates to fewer sacks.)
In the end, as goes Luck, so go the Colts’ chances. That’ll be a tough chore Sunday against the Broncos’ ninth-ranked pass defense.
2. Running Back Daniel Herron
The Colts’ patchwork running game in 2014 didn’t exactly frighten many defenses.
The team ranked 22nd in the NFL this season, gaining 100.8 yards per game on the ground, and its top runner, Trent Richardson, missed Sunday’s game with an illness. He led the team with 519 yards in the regular season. The Colts also only scored nine rushing touchdowns, one of just nine teams that failed to break into double-digits.
Herron, a second-year pro, cobbled together easily the best game of his career against Cincinnati on Sunday, rushing for 56 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown, and catching 10 passes for 85 yards. He surged in the second half of the season with 277 yards on 56 carries.
While Richardson will likely return and Luck is a threat to scramble — he scored three rushing touchdowns to go with 273 yards this season — it’s possible the Broncos will need to focus on Herron.
Fox said the Colts, despite their somewhat measly running resume, are committed to trying to rush the ball.
“Herron has become their bell cow guy and has done a terrific job,” Fox said Monday. “They use big people, big linemen (and) multiple tight ends — what we call 13 personnel. They’ve got some misdirection, trap-type plays. You’ve got a mobile quarterback. You’ve got the read option. There is so much they are capable of. Their running back situation has been a little bit like ours. They’ve Rolodexed it through there.”
3. Receiver T.Y. Hilton
Hilton is Luck’s favorite target, leading the Colts in receiving in 2014 and gaining nearly twice the number of yards (1,345) than teammate Reggie Wayne.
Knighton said stopping the Colts’ running game will allow the Broncos’ safeties to play pass defense — rather than helping contain running backs — and prevent Luck from hitting Hilton down the field.
“They have an elite wide receiver group,” Knighton said. “They’re a team that takes a lot of shots deep with (Hilton).”
Against the Bengals, Hilton hauled in six passes for 103 yards — a gaudy 17.2 yards per catch. And six of nine Colts receivers on Sunday averaged more than 10 yards per catch.
Should the Colts find success on the ground, the Broncos’ cornerbacks may be forced into one-on-one coverage more often, as their safeties won’t be able to stay in the secondary as much. Aqib Talib said Monday he and his fellow corners have focused on tight coverage in practice.
“We just put more emphasis on staying with your guy — plastering, as we call it. Just plastering your receivers, putting more emphasis on it and throughout the week and carry over to the game,” he said.
4. Safety Mike Adams
A former Broncos safety, Adams collected 87 tackles in the regular season, 67 of them solo. He also defensed 11 passes, second on the team. But his role as a turnover machine more profoundly affected the Colts defense.
Adams tied for the league lead in takeaways in the regular season with five interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
As Manning has struggled, at least relatively, in the second half of the season — he threw 10 of his 15 interceptions in the last eight games — Adams could pounce on any Manning miscues.
Fox said Indianapolis’ defense has “gelled” with Adams in the secondary.
“They’re playing faster and better. We’ll have to play very well to beat them,” he said.
The Colts ranked 12th in pass defense during the regular season.
5. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson
By a considerable margin, the Colts’ inside linebacker led the team with 140 tackles in the regular season to pace the league’s 18th-ranked rush defense.
“They have playmakers all over the field,” Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas said Sunday.
Jackson certainly is one. He also had four quarterback sacks, recovered four fumbles and was second on the team with six tackles for a loss during the regular season. Sunday was his first career playoff game after suffering through eight seasons with Cleveland.
On Sunday, he made six tackles and helped keep the Bengals to 10 points.
“I think the main thing is watching the game (on Sunday) and how the Bengals couldn’t get points. It’s a lot of blitzes that they disguise well,” Thomas said. “They try to get to the quarterback to interrupt the whole game, and if they can do that, they can do stuff.”
– Written by Tim Skillern for CBSDenver.com.
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