This week, the Denver Broncos will have to make like Mad Max Rockatansky, and tap into their inner road warrior. Their Week 9 matchup with the Indianapolis Colts marks the fifth time through the first eight games the Broncos have to do battle on the road.
They're 4-0 on the road this year. And the good news is that if they pull out the victory in Week 9, they'll have just three road games left in their final eight games. The Broncos still have to contend with the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, the two other AFC powerhouses, but both teams will have to travel to Sports Authority Field at Mile High later in the season.
Because of their phenomenal 7-0 start, and the way their schedule is structured down the stretch, this Broncos team is positioned well within the seeding structure of the AFC posteseason tourament. With how dominant this defense is, nobody wants to play Denver at home in January.
But the Colts currently lead in the AFC South. In all likelihood, they'll manage to win their division, no matter what happens in Week 9, which means the Broncos can't afford to lose this game. Let's get to the keys to victory.
There's No Such Thing As Luck
Andrew Luck has had the Broncos number. Including playoffs, he's 2-1 vs. Denver, with the most recent win coming on the road in the Divisional Round this past January. He's big, he's strong and when the chips are down, he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league at coming from behind and willing his team to victory.
But, he's banged up and he's coming off of three consecutive losses for the first time as a pro. Luck's team is in a state of total disarray. And his offensive line can't protect him. He's been sacked 14 times and hit 23 times this season—and he's responsible for 14 turnovers. Those numbers are even more alarming when you consider that he missed two starts (ribs).
And now he gets the best defense in the league, who've notched 29 sacks and 29 QB hits and have 17 takeaways through seven games. None of the Broncos defenders have been willing to admit that this game has any extra meaning. Publicly, they're not willing to give the Colts any bulletin board material.
But you can believe they're out for pay-back. They're looking to avenge their terrible postseason loss this past January. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, even though he wasn't with the Broncos in 2014, is 1-3 vs. Luck as a coordinator. He takes pleasure in exacting revenge for past transgressions (see Week 8).
Phillips will have his unit champing at the bit on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts offensive line will have the benefit of playing at home, but Phillips is going to throw the kitchen sink at Luck. The fourth-year gunslinger has been pressing, trying to overcome a multitude of Colts issues. But he's falling short.
Nursing sore ribs and now an ankle, Luck likely won't be as mobile as usual. If the Broncos defense can repeat their Week 8 performance, keep Luck in the pocket and blanket his receivers, I really like their chances of taking another win on the road.
Finding That Third & Fourth Option
The Broncos chose to move on from Wes Welker and Julius Thomas this year. Letting them go has impacted Peyton Manning and the offense more than perhaps they're willing to admint. Manning struggled immensely through the first six games of the season.
One of the biggest reasons for Manning's struggles, that not many people are talking about, is the lack of a third and fourth option in the passing game. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders have played well on the outside. But until last week, Manning had a difficult time finding purchase underneath and over the middle, especially on third down.
Whatever Gary Kubiak and Manning homed in on over the bye, it tanslated to more two tight end sets. The tight ends were more involved in the offense and it paid huge dividends for Manning. He was more efficient, more poised, more deadly.
Virgil Green and Owen Daniels combined for six receptions for 105 yards. And now the Broncos have another bona-fide target in Vernon Davis, whom they traded for this past Monday. Having multiple tight ends on the field also impacted the running game, as the Broncos rushed for a season high 160 yards vs. Green Bay.
I expect Kubiak and Manning to take what we saw in Week 8 and turn it into a trend. Jordan Norwood will miss this game with a hamstring, and it's a blessing in disguise. Denver has to utilize the tight ends. And when they go 3-wide, get Bennie Fowler involved, who has capitalized on every opportunity he's received this year.
Manning needs that third and fouth option in the passing game. The Broncos seem to be aware of that now, which the Davis trade tells us. The Colts have a middle-of-the-pack passing defense. Expect Manning to take advantage of that on Sunday.
Onus on the O-Line
The Broncos offensive line was as maligned as any unit in the league to start the season. They couldn't protect the quarterback, or get any push in the running game. It was no surprise, considering that the Broncos only returned one starter in 2015 (RG Louis Vasquez) and were learning a new offensive system.
It took some time, but the Broncos seem to finally have hit their stride in the trenches. They're protecting Manning very well of late. No team has allowed fewer sacks since Week 3 than the Broncos, allowing an average of just one sack per every 37 dropbacks.
The O-line's cohesion has also translated to the running game. Over the last four games, the Broncos have averaged 124 rushing yards per game, a significant improvement over the anemic 57 yards per game they averaged over the first three.
Their interior continues to be the strength of the unit. Doc Bear had a nice breakdown on how LG Evan Mathis and C Matt Paradis performed in Week 8, focusing on tandem blocks. They're working well together. They just needed time to gel.
The arrival of RT Michael Schofield to the starting lineup, curiously, coincides with the marked improvement at every level on the Broncos O-line. He now has a stranglehold on the starting job. Schofield has held his own in pass protection, shutting down Julius Peppers last week.
Finally, rotating Ryan Harris and Tyler Polumbus at LT, although unconventional, has worked. The proof is in the pudding. Now, the Broncos get a Colts pass rush that has only netted 12 sacks on the season. Robert Mathis has four, but three of them have come over the last two games.
If the Broncos can shut down Mathis, Manning will have time to throw. The Colts don't have anyone else to rush the passer. Mathis still has gas left in the tank and was a constant menace the last time the Broncos played in Lucas Oil Stadium, so they must account for him on each and every play.
The O-line has another juicy matchup in the running game. The Colts field the No. 28 rushing defense, allowing an average of 124.9 yards per game on the ground. Ronnie Hillman is questionable with a thigh injury, but C.J. Anderson looked like a different player coming off the bye in Week 9, confirming our suspicions that he was playing hurt to start the season.
It's amazing what a little R & R will do for a running back. Then again, the Broncos O-line opened some monster holes vs. Green Bay. But Anderson showed the vision and ability to get yards after contact that was missing from his game to start the season.
It all starts up front. As the O-line performs, so goes the offense. On the road, in a hostile environment with high stakes, the onus will be on trench-heads to get the job done.
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Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.