Since everything starts up front with any 3-4 defense, it's worth noting that the three starters for the Broncos represent the worst 3-4 defensive line the Colts will face this season.
This isn't to say that they're bad players, since no one that starts at this level is bad per se, but they are certainly the least talented and least experienced (especially in 3-4 terms) unit that Indianapolis has faced or will face. Left end Ryan McBean was out of football in 2008, nose tackle Ronald Fields started only nine games in four seasons with San Francisco, and right end Kenny Peterson wasn't able to crack the starting lineup the previous three seasons when Denver deployed four linemen in their base defense instead of three.
All that having been said, the Broncos run defense is actually fairly formidable despite their 16th overall ranking (108.7 yards per game). They have allowed the seventh fewest yards per attempt in the league (3.9) and have faced the tenth most attempts (27.8 per game). By way of comparison, the numbers for the Indianapolis defense are 17th (111.7) 16th (4.2), and 17th (26.4), respectively.
The Colts will never be mistaken for the Minnesota Vikings in terms of run-stopping prowess, but they have made strides this season and have allowed more yards on fewer attempts than Denver has. The directional stats back this up — and come to the defense of Fields — as the Broncos have allowed only 3.36 yards per rush on 121 attempts up the middle and are only allowing more than five yards per carry in one direction, around the left side of the offensive formation, which would be running right at Peterson and linebacker Elvis Dumervil and behind Charlie Johnson. Indianapolis has averaged only 4.11 yards per attempt around left end, so it is a matchup of weakness against weakness.
But, Dumervil is one of the most destructive forces in the NFL and already has 15 sacks, so Johnson should have more success steamrolling towards Dumervil than he would trying to stop Dumervil from sacking Peyton Manning. In addition, Dumervil is undersized at 5-foot-11 and 248 pounds, so it would make sense to attempt to slow him down and wear him down by running straight at him. Dumervil is powerfully built and has a low center of gravity just like Dwight Freeney, though, so Johnson may not find breaking him down to be an easy task.
McBean and left outside linebacker Mario Haggan should not present much of a challenge to Ryan Diem in the passing game, but they have been stout around right end, allowing an average of 3.31 yards per carry, which is fourth in the league.
If Johnson can handle Dumervil, Jeff Saturday, Kyle DeVan, and Ryan Lilja should be able to deal with the inside blitz packages Denver uses for its talented inside linebackers. The key is to keep Dumervil pinned down or on his heels and prevent him from taking over the game by repeatedly getting to Manning.
Dumervil is more of a fourth lineman in this scheme and played defensive end in college — and his entire career with the Broncos until Josh McDaniels installed the 3-4 as the team's base defense and moved Dumervil outside — so he will not be a factor in the passing game in terms of coverage. Denver will occasionally zone blitz and drop Dumervil into coverage, but that does not play to his strengths, so they tend to keep him close to the formation.
Sixth-year inside linebacker DJ Williams has been a starter his entire career and is one of the team's dynamic playmakers in the back eight. They have some talent along the defensive line, but the true strength of the defense lies in the linebacking corps and the secondary, where the Broncos have a great deal of talent and experience. Williams is an excellent two way player, he sheds blocks well, flows smoothly to the football and has sound tackling fundamentals. He is also an accomplished blitzer, has 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, and is comfortable in coverage, though he shouldn't be trusted to cover Dallas Clark.
Denver often runs twists and stunts with Williams and fellow inside linebacker Andra Davis, who also has 3.5 sacks. Davis is a tackling machine and is averaging six tackles per game. He is a less versatile and athletic player than Williams, but he is very effective in this defense in executing what the Broncos ask him to do: Find the man with the ball and punish him.
Davis is a very physical, tough football player and is one of the primary reasons that Denver has stopped the run so well up the middle. Running the ball in that area has not been a strong suit for the Colts, so look for them to attack the edges in the running game and attack the middle of the field in the intermediate area in the passing game, as the Broncos safeties are very aggressive and should be crowding the line.
Throughout the course of his career, Dawkins has been one of the more versatile playmakers in the NFL, regardless of position, and he has brought that playmaking mindset to what was already a very aggressive secondary.
But, with aggression also comes the possibility of over committing to a play or falling for a play fake or pump fake. Since the least accomplished players in the secondary are Renaldo Hill and Andre Goodman on the left side of the defense (strong side of the offensive formation), Manning should attack them with Clark and Pierre Garcon, running the slant-and-go to Garcon early and often.
Garcon stepped up big time against the Tennessee Titans in Week 13 due to the fact that he had a more favorable matchup than did Reggie Wayne — Garcon had the most favorable matchup on the field and he and Manning exploited it.
The same is true this week, as Wayne draws another All-Pro player in Champ Bailey. Bailey has been in the league a number of years and is as intelligent and crafty as he is athletically gifted. He is equally comfortable being physical with a receiver by jamming him at the line as he is turning his hips and running downfield.
But, Manning and Wayne have had a good deal of success against Bailey since Champ joined the Broncos, so they may have enough faith in their history with Bailey and knowledge of his tendencies to attack him and take advantage of his one weakness — he takes too many chances. Bailey is usually right when he gambles, but he does make mistakes. The Colts need to cash in on Bailey's failed gambles and strike for chunks of yardage when he loses.
The smart money is on Dawkins covering Clark for most of the day and shadowing the talented tight end wherever he goes. That means that Bailey will either be left on an island with Wayne or Hill will be his help over the top. In either situation, that means the advantage goes to Manning and Wayne.
Bailey is one of the best cornerbacks in the history of the game, but no one can be expected to cover Wayne one-on-one without some quality help deep. If Bailey gets burned early, that will move Dawkins back to Wayne's side of the field and put Hill — or, better yet, Haggan or Williams — on Clark, which is a matchup that Manning can, has, and will readily attack. Add in the fact that Garcon has a very favorable matchup as well and it could be a long day for the Denver secondary.
But, this is a seasoned, resilient group that ranks second in the league in pass defense and third in the league points allowed. They have a great deal of talent and experience and will not be a pushover by any means.
That does not mean, though, that Manning and company can't eventually whittle them down and break them. Eventually, that will happen, and the Broncos do not have the personnel on offense to strike back.
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