DENVER — Julius Thomas was wearing out the Colts’ defense in the first half of Denver's 31-24 Sunday night victory.
Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman couldn’t stay with him on a first touchdown catch. Thomas ran away from inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson on his second pass catch for a score. Then the 6-5, 250-pound tight end shoved aside safety LaRon Landry on a quick-slant strike for his third TD.
“He’s a monster,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said, in an understatement.
Asked if he loves it when a linebacker his assigned him in coverage, Thomas said, “Well, at least I hope. I’m always looking forward to it.”
Thomas finished with seven catches for 104 yards and the three TDs. He tied a single-game team record for most touchdown catches by a tight end. And he did it all in the first half, when the Broncos built a 24-0 lead.
“I believe that if you get in man coverage, you have to win,” he said of besting Landry.
Added Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning: “Good game by him, good start. I think all of the work he put in to this offseason paid off tonight for him.”
Pagano stated more of the obvious.
“He is a matchup and a nightmare,” the coach said.
Backfield production at times
Bradshaw finished with a team-high 20 yards on six carries. Richardson ran for 15 yards on three carries.
Bradshaw was more effective in the pass game with five catches for 70 yards. Both Bradshaw and Richardson had one drop.
Quarterback Andrew Luck also ran five times for 19 yards, which gave the Colts a respectable 3.9-yard average per carry. Problem is, they had just 14 rushes for 54 yards. That’s not remotely close to offensive balance in a game when Luck threw 53 passes, completing 35 for 370 yards.
Freeman, Johnson exit
Pagano said Freeman left the game in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury. The Colts’ leading tackler each of the past two seasons had seven stops, one shy of Landry for team-high honors.
Freeman as well as outside linebacker Cam Johnson (triceps) will be re-evaluated at the team complex on Monday. Freeman was coming off a thumb injury which caused him to miss most of preseason. Johnson, a reserve, departed in the first half.
Luck was sacked three times and took more than double that in physical shots as Broncos pass rushers also had six hurries.
The Broncos crossed up the Colts at least a couple of times with inside blitzes. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware was credited with 1.5 sacks.
“It was just a matter of execution,” said Colts rookie left guard Jack Mewhort after his first NFL start. “Obviously we just have to do better from the start. I made a lot of mistakes and there were a lot of things I could have done better.”
Shipley gets start
The team had one issue late, when the play clock expired while Luck was pleading for the ball to be snapped, and right tackle Gosder Cherilus fired off the line for an illegal procedure penalty. That set the Colts back to a third-and-15 situation on their last drive, yardage they couldn’t gain.
The Colts’ other inactives were wide receiver Da’RIck Rogers, running back Zurlon Tipton, safety Sergio Brown, inside linebacker Henoc Muamba, offensive guard Joe Reitz and defensive tackle Montori Hughes.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.