The Colts head into Denver with many questions unanswered and only two weeks to fine-tune their attack before their season opener on September 11th. The Broncos, who have been knocked out of the playoffs for two consecutive seasons by the Colts, will use this matchup as a barometer of where they stand heading into the 2005 season. They needed to improve their talent and they took steps to do that, but was it enough?
And this is the first game for the Colts where they have invested significant time into game-planning against their opponents, so this is also the tune-up for the coaching staff as well. Rather than focusing on running plays and seeing how effective they are, the Colts' players will be prepared for their opponent's strengths, weaknesses, and how to win their one-on-one battles. That could make a big difference in how you see the team perform Saturday night,
Here's what you should keep an eye on as the game progresses Saturday night.
The Offensive Line
Even though the starters are supposed to see three quarters of action, don't be surprised to see some changes on the offensive line during that stretch. With center Jeff Saturday still out with a hamstring injury, the Colts need to find the right combination of players that can open some holes for James and protect Manning. So far, the shift of guard Ryan Lilja to center and Makoa Freitas to guard hasn't produced stellar results. The Colts offensive line has given up 14 sacks during the preseason, worst in the league.
The Running Game
This is a crucial area for the Colts on both sides of the ball. The offense has averaged just 1.2 yards per carry so far this preseason behind a patchwork offensive line, putting them last in the NFL during preseason in rushing. Meanwhile, the Colts defense has always been challenged by Denver's talented crew of running backs and this game will be no different. The Broncos' running backs are averaging 5.2 yards per carry in the preseason, tops in the league.
Manning Versus Broncos Cornerbacks
Denver used their first three picks on cornerbacks, and with veteran Champ Bailey sidelined with hamstring problems, Denver's top draft picks will see plenty of the league's top quarterback. How Manning is able to execute, and how well those rookies will be able to defend will be a key factor in the outcome of the game. Denver is giving up a 6th-best 147 yards per game passing and 3 touchdown passes while registering 6 sacks (3 per game)
Colts Defense Versus Denver Offense
Who'd have though it? In this topsy-turvy preseason, the Broncos are the top-ranked offense in the league. And get this -- the Colts are #6 in defense in total yards allowed per game, giving up 265 yards per game over the past three weeks. And they are second in the league against the pass. So Denver's starting offense will be a good test for an improving Colts' defensive unit. And whie the Colts secondary gets some key players back -- Nick Harper and Donald Strickland -- rookie Marlin Jackson and Bob Sanders will watch from the sidelines.
The Freeney Factor
How much did the Colts miss Dwight Freeney during the first three games? More importantly, how will he perform in his first live action since his offseason shoulder surgery. Robert Mathis is going to take a rest after helping the Colts post their 9 sacks that have put them tied for 7th-place in the preseason. Denver has given up an average of 2 sacks per game.
The Turnover Battle
The Colts have forced 7 turnovers in three games (3 INT, 4 fumbles) turnovers while the Broncos have yet to get a takeaway in their first two preseason games. But the Colts have surrendered the ball 7 times (3 INT, 4 fumbles) as well while Denver has just one interception in its first two games.
The Colts have attempted five field goals in the preaseason, connecting on just two of them. That 40% success rate is the worst in the league right now. Look for improvement from the Colts in this area as the starting offense should be able to set up some opportunities.
Escaping Without Injury
Can the Colts defensive line and linebackers emerge from this game without significant injuries? The Broncos' offensive line is well-known for their crackback style of blocking that puts players' knees in jeopardy. And with the Colts starters on both units playing three quarters of football in what will likely be the final preseason action for many of them, heading back to Indy with at least all of the starters healthy would be a win.
Colts Injury Report
Linebacker Tyjuan Hagler (sports hernia, Physically Unable to Perform), cornerback Von Hutchins (foot, PUP), defensive tackle Josh Williams (sports hernia, PUP), defensive back Daryl Dixon (thigh), defensive tackle Montae Reagor (groin), center Jeff Saturday (hamstring), wide receiver Brandon Stokley (shoulder), defensive tackle Sweet Pea Burns (knee), defensive end Jonathan Welsh (knee), offensive tackle David Porter (knee, ankle), safety Mike Doss (groin), safety Gerome Sapp (shoulder), safety Bob Sanders (leg), defensive end Josh Thomas (foot), running back Dominic Rhodes (foot), cornerback Marlin Jackson (hip flexor), tight end Justin Snow (groin) and defensive end Robert Mathis.
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