Left tackle Ryan Clady is a former first-round pick and was viewed as more of a technician than a mauler when he came out of Boise State in 2008. He has done an admirable job standing up to a number of speed rushers so far this season, especially against James Harrison of Pittsburgh and Shawn Merriman of San Diego in Weeks 9, 6, and 11, respectively.
He is not a player that can be outhustled to the quarterback, as he is very athletic for his size, has quick feet, and good hips, so Dwight Freeney will not be able to beat him to the edge.
Freeney needs to get into Clady's body and work to the inside with spin and swim moves. Kyle Orton has a tendency to step into pressure, so hopefully he will be waiting for Freeney when he comes, provided that left guard Russ Hochstein does not chip in and help Clady.
The Broncos are confident in Clady's abilities, though, and are unlikely to give him much assistance with Freeney unless it is found to be needed. That means that Freeney needs to win this matchup early in order to get Denver and their blocking schemes on their heels.
The big mismatch is Robert Mathis against replacement right tackle Herb Taylor. Adam Caplan reported on Wednesday that starting right tackle Ryan Harris was placed on injured reserve with a toe injury.
Mathis needs to beat Taylor to the edge in order to force Orton up in the pocket, hopefully into the waiting hands of Freeney. If he happens to beat Taylor — who was just signed and will not have a full week of practice under his belt — to the quarterback and get the sack, more the better, but Mathis is a key component in the overall success of the Indianapolis defense in this matchup.
Also, Denver will probably give Taylor some help with a tight end or tailback, which will cut down on the number of men in the pattern.
Center Casey Wiegmann and right guard Chris Kuper are undersized for their positions, as the Broncos have, historically, gone for smaller, more mobile players at the position. This is one of the few situations this season where the Colts — who have gotten beefier up the middle, but still generally find themselves at a size disadvantage — will find themselves to be bigger on the inside, as both Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir have height and weight advantages on their adversaries. They basically need to take up space in the middle, occupying blockers and allowing Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt to flow to the football.
Denver has struggled running the ball up the middle, though, with only a 3.75 yard per carry average to that direction, as opposed to averages over five yards per attempt to right tackle, right tackle, and left end. This will put Philip Wheeler and Clint Session in a position to do what they do best — attack the line of scrimmage and go after the ball carrier.
That matchup will take care of itself, provided that the Broncos do not have early success running between the tackles, which is often thought to be the weakness of this Colts defense.
Brandon Marshall is the star of this unit and he is an impressive physical player that can use his size to beat press coverage, use his body to box out a defender, and use his speed to get deep. He is a difficult matchup for Jerraud Powers (should the Colts decide to put Powers on Marshall and not Kelvin Hayden) but Powers needs to bear in mind that he simply needs to obey his responsibility in this defense and keep Marshall in front of him.
Marshall has been effective deep, averaging 19.16 yards per attempt deep to his side of the field, which is best in the NFL. But Powers has allowed only an average of 9.04 yards per attempt to his side of the field in the deep passing area, so this is a matchup of strength against strength. Powers needs to keep the play in front of him and allow Bullitt and Wheeler to punish Marshall if he decides to run a slant or an out. If he gets caught up in a double-move, the Broncos will strike in a hurry.
On the other side of the field, Eddie Royal has struggled following his breakout rookie campaign and has posted only 33 receptions for 314 yards and no touchdowns. This means that either Jacob Lacey or Hayden might actually have a favorable matchup, but they cannot become complacent. When opposing cornerbacks have not paid Royal enough attention, he has been able to move the chains by catching the ball underneath and gaining yards after the catch.
He is not a deep threat as he was in 2008, so the Colts need to stay on him at the line of scrimmage and allow Session to clean up whatever he does not cover.
Stokley and Scheffler have only 12 and 28 receptions, respectively, but they cannot be ignored. Orton is an intelligent quarterback that will go through his progressions and target the player that is most open. Tim Jennings — or Lacey, depending on how the Colts utilize Hayden needs to be cognizant of where Stokley is at all times, since he is a crafty receiver that tends to make the most of his limited opportunities.
Stokley has three touchdown receptions and Scheffler has two, so the Indianapolis defense will need to keep tabs on these players when the Broncos get in the red zone. The Colts have been very effective on defense in the red zone and they need to make sure they know where these two players are in those situations in order to maintain their success.
Rookie Knowshon Moreno appears to have taken over the lead role in this tailback tandem, but Correll Buckhalter will still be involved, especially in passing situations, where Moreno has yet to show that he is a suitable blocking back.
The two backs have combined for 43 receptions for 321 yards and a touchdown, so they will be factors in the passing game, but, as their yards per reception averages suggest, they are mostly utilized as checkdown options. They are both fine players and capable receivers, but they do not possess the explosive playmaking abilities of Steve Slaton or Chris Johnson, whom the Colts defense already faced twice apiece this season.
Despite changes in regimes and some minor changes in personnel, this is still a one-cut rushing attack. Moreno and Buckhalter will assess the line of scrimmage, make their decision, and make one cut which will determine the flow of the play. Indianapolis needs to keep doing what they've done on defense, which is to attack the ball carrier, be aggressive, and make sure that they don't get caught out of position.
Both backs still have the ability and speed to make the defense pay if they over commit or take the wrong angle, but as long as things remain status quo with the run defense, the Colts should be fine.
If Indianapolis can keep this running attack, which ranks a very respectable ninth in the NFL, in check, that will put the game in the hands of Kyle Orton.
Orton has been saddled with the dreaded "game manager" moniker, but he has proven throughout the course of his career that that is a false label. He is a very capable passer that can make all the throws, they just don't look quite as crisp as similar throws from more prototypical passers.
Denver opened the season by picking their opponents apart with short, precision passes. When teams adjusted and shut down the short passing game that the Broncos were deploying it was assumed that Orton could not push the ball deep. Orton has proved this to be a false assumption as well the past few games by averaging the aforementioned NFL-best average of 19.16 yards per attempt to the deep left and 11.76 yards per attempt to the deep right.
The Colts would be wise to not underestimate Orton and work hard to keep everything in front of them. If the Broncos do decide to go with a short passing attack, Indianapolis has high marks in all directions, allowing an average of 4.93 yards per attempt to the short left, 6.44 yards per attempt to the short middle, and 5.63 yards per attempt to the short right.
The way to attack the Colts defense is with the 12-yard post and 15-yard out. Orton needs to prove, once again, that he can make those throws with the zip and precision necessary. And it is up to the Indianapolis defenders — who have allowed 15.06 yards per attempt to the deep middle — to stop him.
Teams have realized that they need to score on the Indianapolis defense in order to keep pace with their explosive offense and those realizations have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks, with several coaches taking chances on fourth and short in order to maintain possession and bring the fight to the Colts.
Denver is fighting for a division title and for their playoff lives, so do not expect them to back down ever. Expect them to push the ball down the field with an aggressive approach that will live and die by the right arm of Kyle Orton. Whether or not he is able to produce and match Peyton Manning score-for-score will decide the outcome of this game.
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