Ed Thompson: You're right, in this age of free agency and parity, it's extremely difficult for a team to repeat as champs. But the Colts are showing no signs of a slump, and in fact appear to be building on their success from last year's postseason. Their offense is clicking well, averaging over 30 points per game, and their defense is playing at the level they were during last year's postseason run. Many people projected the defense would be weak due to the free agency losses of both starting cornerbacks -- Nick Harper and Jason David -- as well as former Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Cato June. But the young corners -- Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden -- are more physical than Harper and David, which is helping the run defense. And second-year linebacker Freddy Keiaho is showing that he'll be a playmaker at the weak side position. After the Texans game, head coach Tony Dungy said in his estimation this year's team is better than last year's Super Bowl unit. Part of the proof is that they won two division games on the road already against improved Titans and Texans teams. The Colts dropped all three of their division road games last year.
MJS: From what I understand, the release of Brandon Stokley was primarily a money issue. How receptive will the Colts fans be when he makes his first appearance in a Broncos uniform?
ET: Stokley should get a warm reception from Indy fans. He was personable and well-liked. Fans respected his work ethic and I think more than anything were saddened by his rash of injuries last season. With the contract he was playing under, there was little argument for risking that much money on a receiver who had three leg injuries the previous season. The Colts are a very practical team from that standpoint. I think they would have considered holding onto him for less money, but once he hit the open market following his release, the bidding went beyond what they obviously felt the risk was worth. I spoke to middle linebacker Gary Brackett this week and he knows he will be seeing plenty of Stokley across the middle, and he really respects him as a player and a person.
Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday
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MJS: Through the first three weeks of the season the Broncos rushing defense has been absolutely abysmal while their passing defense currently leads the NFL. Will this alter Tony Dungy's game plan this Sunday or do you expect the usual Peyton Manning aerial assault?
ET: You should see a balanced attack early in the game as the Colts don't like to be one-dimensional. Joseph Addai is providing a strong run presence that allows Manning to be more confident in the running game. And he knows that if they can get the run going, he'll be able to open up the passing game as he's a master of the fake on play-action. The Colts usually have the philosophy that they will take whatever the defense gives them. If the Broncos show standard formations and don't blitz much -- like Houston did last week -- you can expect a balanced attack. If they show a lot of nickel packages, Manning won't hesitate to switch gears to the run. Stack the box against the run, he'll open up the passing game. Unfortunately for defenses, when they try to force the Colts to be one-dimensional, Indy has the talent across their entire unit to be successful whether teams are trying to force them to run or pass.
MJS: At 3-0 and near the top of the league in every statistical category it's hard to find and glaring weaknesses with the Colts. What's the Broncos best approach this Sunday if they hope to pull off the upset?
ET: Defensively I could see them going one of two directions to be successful. Play a balanced, standard defense and hope the Colts stall a few of their own drives with dropped passes or penalties just to keep the game close -- as long as you have confidence that your offense can move the ball and keep pace. Or Denver may want to stack the box and try to force the Colts to the air -- as crazy as that sounds with Manning at the helm -- seeing if their highly-talented secondary can come up with a few big plays to give the Denver offense a few extra possessions, perhaps in great field position to boot. Offensively, I think they're going to have to win this game through the air and perhaps with some scrambling by Jay Cutler. The Colts have effectively shut down the run this season despite facing backs like Reggie Bush and Chris Brown and I expect them to come out with that being their top goal against Denver. If they're successful in forcing the Broncos to be one-dimensional, Denver will have to try to exploit CB Kelvin Hayden as other teams this season have had some success against him. He's a fundamentally sound and feisty corner, but he's a first-year starter who isn't exactly blanketing his man from week-to-week. Cutler scrambling and taking off occasionally could keep the Colts a bit off balance, but he's going to have to be patient and dink-and-dunk his way down the field. The Colts don't give up many long plays through the air.
MJS: Including the two playoff blowouts, the Colts hold a 5-2 advantage over the Denver Broncos in the last seven games. Is this more a matter of better personnel on the field, or has Mike Shanahan simply been out-coached by Tony Dungy?
ET: I think you'd have to say it's a combination of both. The Colts have done a masterful job of scouting talent and gradually working them into their system so that as free agents are ready to hit the open market, their successor is already groomed and ready to step in. They've held onto their higher-priced key players through rotating younger, less expensive players into the starting lineup at less crucial spots on both sides of the ball. That consistency at the key positions on both sides of the ball is huge from a chemistry and leadership perspective. As far as coaching goes, I highly respect Mike Shanahan and think he's one of the truly sharp coaches in this league. But I think in their matchups, Dungy has not only had the better personnel, but has figured out how to use those players to the Colts advantage both prior to and during the games.