ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — To Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano, studying Denver’s secondary this week must have seemed like watching the Pro Bowl announcements.
Denver’s hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward and shutdown cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. were selected to the league’s annual all-star team last month.
You can bet when the Colts (12-5) and Broncos (12-4) meet Sunday with a trip to the AFC championship on the line that Luck will be just as leery of Rahim Moore. He picked off Luck twice in the season opener and made an outstanding comeback from a rare muscle condition.
“It’s not just four guys,” Luck said. “You’ll see six, seven DBs out on the field. I think a ball-hawking group. They understand football, they know what they are doing, and they do it well.”
It was, after all a rookie cornerback — first-round draft pick Bradley Roby — who sealed the Broncos’ 31-24 win back in September when he broke up Luck’s pass to Reggie Wayne on fourth down.
And he’s only gotten better playing alongside Talib, Harris and Ward for 16 games.
“Those are three Pro Bowl guys I’m learning from every day,” Roby said.
Talib and Harris, former teammates at Kansas, reunited this season to form the top cornerback tandem in the NFL.
“Two great corners,” marveled Pagano, the Colts coach.
“Studs,” Luck said.
Talib, whom GM John Elway lured away from New England last winter with a $57 million contract, picked off four passes, returning two for touchdowns (a third one was called back when a teammate jumped offside).
Harris didn’t allow a single touchdown all season after needing just seven months to recover from ACL surgery.
“He’s probably been the fastest guy to ever come back off an ACL,” Elway said last month when Harris signed a $42.5 million contract extension “You look at what he did, the time that he spent this offseason to get healthy and be ready to go and be ready to start the regular season. I’m not sure anybody has ever come back as fast as he’s come back, so that kind of tells you what kind of guy he is.”
Colts tight end Coby Fleener came closest to scoring a TD with Harris in coverage, but Harris broke it up at the last moment.
“Because I’d torn my ACL, I figured teams would be going after me like crazy from the jump,” Harris said. “So, I had to shut it down early and that’s what I did. I had to let them know early that just because I tore my knee, I wasn’t going to have that.”
Harris played just 39 of 74 snaps in the season opener and he likes to point out he was on the sideline in the fourth quarter when Luck threw TD passes to Dwayne Allen and Hakeem Nicks to turn a 31-10 laugher into a nail-biter.
Having two cornerbacks who can lock down receivers in single coverage has ripple effects on the rest of Denver’s defense.
“When you have two guys that can play man-to-man, that gives the rush up front a lot more time,” said DeMarcus Ware, who teamed with Von Miller to get two dozen sacks.
“We can switch (matchups) during the game,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “And don’t forget about Bradley, who’s really had an outstanding rookie season. When you look at it in his totality, name me a young DB that has played better.”
Pagano has a similar situation in Indy with cornerbacks Greg Toler and Vontae Davis.
“They’ve got two guys like we have that allow you to do as much as you want to do with the other players on the defense, whether you want to rush four, five or six, blitz or whatnot. You’ve got two guys that can shadow, get up in people’s faces, play great zone coverage, man coverage,” Pagano said.
“They’ve got instincts, awareness and ball skills. They run around. They can match up. We’ve been down that road before with Talib in last year’s playoff game in New England. They’re talented guys.”
Notes: The Broncos had 100 percent participation in practice on back-to-back days for just the second time all season (Oct. 2-3). … On the third-year anniversary of his 80-yard TD catch from Tim Tebow in overtime that beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs, Demaryius Thomas admitted, “I didn’t even know we won the game.” That was the first year of the new overtime rules for the playoffs “and I probably wasn’t paying attention when they talked about it,” he said.
Arnie Stapleton, AP Pro Football Writer
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