The Denver Broncos are set to face the Indianapolis Colts in the Divisional Round of this year’s playoffs. The Broncos should be well rested after receiving a week off and watching the Colts defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card round.
This is the second time the Broncos will see the Colts at Mile High, the first time being all the way back in week one of the regular season. In that matchup, the Broncos held off an Indy comeback by a score of 31-24.
A lot has changed since then, especially for the Broncos. Some may even say that this isn’t the team they expected Denver to be coming into the playoffs – for better or for worse.
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There have been little changes since that first matchup against the Colts that could potentially have a big impact on the game such as the special teams shakeup during the season. Matt Prater was released after serving three games of his four-game suspension in favor of the big-legged rookie Brandon McManus. McManus struggled and was cut in week 13 after failing to hit 70% of his field goal attempts. Free agent Connor Barth was then brought on and McManus was re-signed to be the Broncos’ kickoff specialist. To make room for McManus, the Broncos cut rookie returner Isaiah Burse; he was replaced by a combo of Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders. Andre Caldwell was also relieved of his return duties on kickoff returns for Omar Bolden.
The Broncos linebackers unit has seemed like a revolving door this season. The injury bug hit the Broncos hard last season and stayed in 2014 to feast on this unit. In week one, the Broncos were missing Danny Trevathan to a preseason knee injury and won’t be available for this week’s contest after suffering a season-ending injury to that same knee in week five.
While Trevathan being out there is an obvious plus for the Broncos, the silver lining was brought out in the form of Brandon Marshall. He wasn’t great versus Indianapolis, but he improved every week into the linebacker he is right now. However, he too is coming off an injury, a foot sprain suffered in week 15. Having him out there is crucial to the Broncos success on defense to help against Colts running back Boom Herron and tight end Dwayne Allen in the passing game.
Nate Irving also started week one but was lost for the season after an MCL injury suffered in New England. He had a good game against Indy’s run game. Basically what he showed in that game is what he is as a player. While he’s a liability in coverage, he’s what helped Denver become the #2 defense in the NFL against the run. The Broncos will have to hope Marshall is healthy and undrafted rookie Todd Davis will have to perform better than he did in Cincinnati.
Nov 30, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (25) is tackled by Denver Broncos strong safety T.J. Ward (43) during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Jack Del Rio will also have to play T.J. Ward in the right spots. He’s been pretty good with that down the stretch, and even in the first meeting against the Colts. I’ve talked about his ad nauseam, but Ward is best served as an ipso facto linebacker; he’s best when he plays in or near the box or on blitzes. In week one, Ward was sent to rush Andrew Luck a season high eight times – good. But he was also asked to play in coverage 55 times, only bested twice – bad. It’d be ill advised to leave Ward one-to-one on the outside on a guy like Dwayne Allen. There will be times where he’s forced to cover him off the line, but that’s just the hand Denver’s been dealt with the Trevathan and Marshall injuries.
The tight end position has become a bit of a conundrum since the first week as well. Virgil Green suffered a calf injury that landed him on the sidelines for three weeks in the middle of the season, which handicapped the run game for the most part.
Against the Colts, Julius Thomas caught seven passes for 104 yards and three touchdowns en route to looking like he was about to have an All-Pro season. Now, he’s not looking nearly like the player we all thought he would, especially in his contract year. This is probably due do his ankle injury suffered in week 12 against the St. Louis Rams.
Ever since then he’s been scuffling. Even when he was activated in week 15 in San Diego, he wasn’t used that much and didn’t give the Broncos’ red zone offense the boost we expected with his return. Since his injury, he’s caught five passes for 66 yards and no touchdowns. He’s played in just over 50% of the Broncos offensive snaps in that span, compared to the 90% of snaps he played in from week one to week 11.
Hopefully the bye week helped him heal up. That’s what Colts Head Coach John Pagano expects when he said Thomas will probably be “a monster” on Sunday. Let’s hope so.
The offensive line has seen it’s fair share of shakeup as well. The Broncos went from a lineup of (in order) Ryan Clady, Orlando Franklin, Manny Ramirez, Louis Vasquez, and Chris Clark. Fast-forward to the present day and the frontline has a much different look: Clady, Franklin, Will Montgomery, Ramirez, and Vasquez. The Broncos also experiemented with Paul Cornick with negative results. Ben Garland was called upon for some spot duty at guard as well during the season.
Sep 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson (22) runs the ball during the first half against the against the Indianapolis Colts at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
That leads to the biggest change of the season for the Broncos. A change to the offensive philosophy that has and will force defenses to adjust accordingly. This change is the implementation of force-feeding the running backs. Ironically, my first post for P.O. was about the need for more running.
I also focused on the shift in philosophy for three weeks straight. Not because I’m lazy, but because I think it’s important – which I think is backed up by the fact that it’s the first thing I chose to write about here.
I won’t specifically delve into the actual change too much. However, it is tremendously striking to see where the Broncos offense has ended up when comparing it to that first week four months ago. That was a time where I was defending Montee Ball while still seeing promise in C.J. Anderson and Juwan Thompson. Thankfully I was right on two of the three.
Against the Colts, Ball rushed 23 times for 67 yards and a touchdown while Anderson rushed four times for 27 yards. In hindsight, while I still think the Broncos offensive line put Ball in a tough position, which led to him leading the league in broken tackles that week with nine, Anderson did the most with his runs. After Ball and Ronnie Hillman, who’s deserved all the credit in the world for his own huge improvements this year, Anderson took the baton and never looked back.
C.J. Anderson is the reason why I think the Broncos are a better team than when we first saw them against the Colts. Instead of having to rely on Peyton Manning (which isn’t a terrible thing), the Broncos can beat the Colts defense with Anderson’s vision, burst, and instincts. The balance of the Broncos offense is something that we didn’t see in week one or in the playoffs, and certainly not in the Super Bowl. This is a different team, which is why I think the Broncos are in good hands this week, led by Peyton Manning and C.J. Anderson.