The Colts have historically had success against the Denver Broncos' defense. On Sunday, though, they face a stiff challenge because of new personnel and a new coach.
In the past, while under stewardship of former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, Denver had struggled to stop (or really even slow down) the vaunted Indianapolis offense. Some players on the squad still have scorch marks on them from the 2003 and 2004 playoffs.
However, that was a different team with a different coordinator than the squad and coach that the Colts will face in Sunday's game. Gone is Larry Coyer, gone are all the former members of the Cleveland Browns defensive line. John Lynch, Ian Gold, and Champ Bailey remain, but this is a markedly changed unit.
In Coyer's scheme, the primary goal was pressure -- pressure on the quarterback and running game through exotic blitz packages -- and pressure on the defense to make sure they wrapped up their man and prevented the big play. Coyer would routinely line up 8 or 9 players within five yards of the line of scrimmage and blitz at least one of them (often two or three to bring the total to a six or seven man rush) with the goal of clogging up rush lanes or forcing the quarterback to make either a snap decision (resulting in a turnover) or default to his "hot read" (resulting in a short gain, provided the defender in front of the receiver was able to make the tackle).
The problem with this defense was the pressure that it applied to the men tasked with executing it. If the blitz failed to shoot the right gaps or sufficiently pressure the quarterback, or if there was a missed tackle, the result would be a big play by the offense (see: Wayne, Reggie, 2006). Early in the 2006 season, when the Broncos faced offenses that were not yet in sync, the plan worked to perfection. As the season wore on and offenses were well-prepared for this strategy, the results were disastrous. And, of course, there's the small matter of the fact that Peyton Manning and the Colts were able to continuously score on Coyer's defense.
In the offseason, Coyer was fired. Enter Jim Bates. Bates runs a scheme that prides itself on pressure, but goes about applying it a different way.
Bates' scheme is predicated on pressure from the front four (the ends rush upfield while the tackles attempt to collapse the middle of the pocket -- much like the Cover 2) and judicious blitzes that are timed to catch the offensive line and quarterback off guard. The back seven, in addition to occasional blitzing, is assigned a zone/man mix with the linebackers primarily responsible for a certain area in the middle of the field and the defensive backs playing in man coverage. Cornerback Dre Bly is more comfortable with a 5-7 yard cushion and Champ Bailey is more comfortable closer to the line of scrimmage, so each player is given the leeway to line up in position that works to their respective strengths.
In this defense, the safeties are the heroes. It is their responsibility to make sure that nothing gets past them (either keeping the running back in front of them or making sure that the receivers don't get behind them).
Broncos safety John Lynch
The bad news for the Colts is that the design of the Bates defense meshes nicely with the strengths of Denver's defenders.
While left end John Engelberger will never be mistaken for Reggie White, he is still a capable defender and is flanked by Simeon Rice, a man that is only 11 spots behind White on the all-time sacks list. Denver's tackle rotation has been bolstered through addition-by-subtraction. Gone are Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren, two underachieving former Browns that never quite lived up to their draft status.
Linebackers Ian Gold and former Miami Hurricane DJ Williams have great range, ball skills, are exceptional tacklers, and are most comfortable working in space (where they've made their fair share of plays the last few seasons). Fellow Hurricane Nate Webster has, thus far, been able to make up for in run support what he lacks in pass coverage. Webster vs. Dallas Clark is a match-up to watch closely in this game (but we covered that in an earlier feature on Webster).
Where the situation gets particularly dangerous for Indianapolis is in the Broncos' secondary. Bly, Bailey, and Lynch have all been to the Pro Bowl. While it's possible that Lynch may not suit up for the Colts-Broncos tilt (listed as day-to-day with a groin injury), that still does not discount the fact that, unlike in previous seasons, the Colts cannot afford to avoid Bailey's side of the field and concentrate on his over-matched counterpart. Reggie Wayne has considerable talent, but he has not faced a Denver cornerback of Bly's caliber in his career. The results are worth watching, of course, but do not look favorable for Indianapolis (and, at the very least the man playing on the opposite side of Bailey is not a pushover).
All that having been said, there is no need for Colts fans to abandon hope by any means.
Manning and his talented offense have more than sufficient firepower to score a lot of points on this defense. Marvin Harrison has had success against Bailey in the past -- there was simply never a reason to target him more often in previous contests. Joseph Addai should have considerable success (especially running to the left) in this game -- especially if Indianapolis is able to run a few screens or draw plays early in an effort to take advantage of the natural running lanes that are created by the gap techniques used by the defensive linemen in Bates' defense.
The key for the offense (especially Manning) will be to display the same patience and focus they had in the two postseason contests against the Bears and Ravens on their way to a Super Bowl Championship. Manning gave a two-game clinic on "How to Take What the Defense Gives You" in last year's playoffs and needs to return to that form. If he and the rest of the offense are able to exhibit the same qualities that made them World Champions in the 2006 Playoffs, they will be successful in Week 4 of the 2007 regular season.
Of course, the same risk exists against this very talented Broncos defense that existed against the Ravens and Bears. Denver has at least one talented playmaker at every level: Rice on the defensive line, Williams and Gold at linebacker, Bailey, Bly, and Lynch in the secondary. If the Colts in a position where they need to run more plays, methodically pushing the ball down the field in an attempt to score, how long can they stay perfect before one of the guys on defense makes a big play?
I guess that's why they play the games.