Five keys to Sunday vs. Broncos

The Colts' challenge is to find a way to disrupt Peyton Manning's timing while protecting their own quarterback Andrew Luck in Sunday night's NFL season opener at Denver.

The Indianapolis Colts travel to Sports Authority Field at Mile High to take on the Denver Broncos at 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Here are five keys for the Colts.

1. Pressure Peyton — Let’s be realistic about what will seem like an impossible task considering the Colts’ Robert Mathis is sitting this one out due to a four-game NFL suspension. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning doesn’t get hit too often, let alone sacked, but the key is to be constant with pressuring him to throw before he wants to. That means more than just hoping outside linebackers Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden can get to him. It’s about blitzing inside with linebackers D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman. When you get a push inside on Manning, it doesn’t give him anywhere to go. But fail to get there and he will take advantage. That’s why it’s not as simple as blitzing every play. It’s about playing a chess game with him, making him wonder when or from where the defenders are coming.

2. Protect Luck — Another obvious statement, granted, but if the Colts can’t keep quarterback Andrew Luck clean most of the time, they don’t stand a chance. The Broncos’ DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller are excellent pass rushers, so they’re going to make some plays. But don’t let them be game-changers. Don’t be surprised if Denver gets creative, too, and calls some stunts up front to send these rushers inside on the Colts’ center and guards. As much as the Colts realize they can’t let Peyton Manning sit back there and be comfortable, the Broncos are aware Luck has his best set of pass catchers in three years and giving him time would be a detriment. It will be interesting to see how Ware plays, considering the Dallas Cowboys’ all-time sack leader has had injury issues the past two seasons. The seven-time Pro Bowl star has shed 10 pounds to get down to 255 and says he’s more agile, so beware of Ware. He lines up at right defensive end, opposite Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

3. Run the ball — While this might sound like a “Ground Chuck” endorsement for the conservative “run the ball and stop the run” philosophy Colts head coach Chuck Pagano preaches, it’s not. But the Colts must move the chains and chew up time on the clock. As we learned from Manning’s days in Indy, he can win when his offense has the ball less than 15 minutes (at Miami on “Monday Night Football” in 2009), but the fewer possessions he has, the better. The Colts’ offense will still probably be a lot of pass to set up the run, but they can’t ignore handing off to Trent Richardson or Ahmad Bradshaw and just throw all the time. Basic football. Incomplete passes stop the clock. Runs keep the clock ticking. If the Colts can win time of possession, that should work to their advantage. But as the Dolphins discovered, when Manning had the ball just 14 minutes, 53 seconds, a TOP edge doesn’t guarantee victory.

4. Third-down efficiency — This applies to both the Colts’ offense and defense. It’s one of the more important statistics in an NFL game, although sometimes ignored when reviewing statistics. The Colts couldn’t get off the field on long drives when facing New Orleans’ Drew Brees for a preseason quarter. When the down-and-distance are to a defense’s advantage, it’s imperative to finish. Missed tackles translate to first downs and eventually touchdowns. On offense, the Colts will hopefully mix it up in the pass game, taking advantage of Broncos’ pressure with some quick-hit plays, but also looking to go deep when the matchup is advantageous. It’s doubtful the Broncos can cover all of the Colts’ pass catchers, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Somebody should always be open, presuming Luck has time to throw.

5. Turnovers — It’s another obvious factor, but is especially important when underdogs are on the road in a hostile environment. Luck and his offense have been practicing all week with noise blasting on the loud speakers. You don’t have to see the workouts, that deafening sound can be heard from the complex parking lot. So expect a lot of silent counts, and everybody must be on the same page. Don’t beat yourself and you have a chance. Turn the ball over and/or fail to get a few turnovers on defense and traditional statistics remind the team with this edge wins more often than not. A costly early turnover can provide a scoring chance and, just like that, you’re playing catch-up.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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