ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Don’t tell Andrew Luck he’s 3-1 against the Denver Broncos. All those games are in the past. His focus is on the future.
“This is a totally different year,” Luck said. “What’s happened in the past has absolutely zero bearing on this game.”
Still, when you look at the stats, it’s difficult to escape the notion that Luck and his Indianapolis Colts have had the Broncos number over the last four years.
The Colts have won three of their last four games against the Broncos. Of course, two of those wins came at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and Luck is just 1-1 playing in Denver, but even those games tell the story of a fearless player and a team full capable of winning in the Mile High City.
During his career against the Broncos, Luck has averaged 278.5-yards passing, 2.25 passing touchdowns, and just one interception.
The Colts aren’t only hoping Luck can match or exceed those numbers when he plays the Broncos for the fifth time in his career this Sunday, they’re counting on it.
This game has all the hallmarks of a Broncos win. However, so long as Luck is in command of the Indianapolis offense, the Broncos will have their hands full.
Broncos- The Broncos come into this week two contest in fairly good shape. Eight players are listed on their Friday injury report: linebacker DeMarcus Ware (back), backup center James Ferentz (knee), tight end Jeff Heuerman (ankle), defensive end Billy Winn (back), offensive lineman Ty Sambrailo (elbow/ankle), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (hip), defensive end Derek Wolfe (neck), and receiver Bennie Fowler (elbow).
Of those, three are listed as questionable for the game. Fowler is the only Bronco already listed as out. The 25-year-old broke a bone in his elbow during training camp and is slowly making his way back to the field. While he was able to do some light work during the individual periods of practice this week, he has yet to work at all with the team and was officially listed as “DNP” every day this week.
Sambrailo also injured his elbow during training camp and hadn’t been able to practice until last week. He’s been either “Full” or “Limited” all week and could be active for the first time this season on Sunday. If he’s able to dress, the Broncos are hopeful they’ll be able to add him into their offensive line rotation. He’s a talented and athletic lineman who has been working to make the transition from tackle to guard during the offseason and could potentially start for this team at right guard if current starter Michael Schofield is ineffective as the season goes on.
Wolfe is dealing with a neck injury he suffered early in the week and is currently listed as “Questionable” for Sunday’s game against the Colts. He’s been limited the last two days in practice. However, Wolfe has been worked in slowly and both he and the Broncos coaching staff expect their top defensive end to play.
“He looked good,” head coach Gary Kubiak said. “He took what we wanted him to take…it looks like we’re headed towards him being okay.”
Meanwhile, Thomas’ injury is the real notable one for the Broncos.
Denver’s star pass-catcher went down during their 21-20 week one victory against the Carolina Panthers with soreness in his left hip. He was able to play through the game, but a Monday MRI revealed what sources say is a tear in his labral.
Thomas and the Broncos reached out for a second opinion early in the week, but Thomas was still able to practice in some capacity most of the week.
However, during practices on both Wednesday and Friday Thomas was seen patting and rubbing the injury, appearing to be in noticeable pain. While he’s currently listed as “questionable,” Kubiak expects him to play. For Thomas, it’s only a matter of how effective he will be dealing with an injury that has been known to sideline wide receivers for seasons at a time.
Colts- Where the Broncos are fairly healthy headed into this game, the same can’t be said for their opponents.
The Colts are absolutely decimated by injuries, mostly on the back-end of their already below-average defense.
16 players were listed on head coach Chuck Pagano’s Friday injury report: linebacker Trent Cole (back), corner Vontae Davis (ankle), safety Clayton Geathers (foot), safety T.J. Green (knee), linebacker Robert Mathis (foot), tackle Joe Reitz (back), cornerback Patrick Robinson (concussion), defensive end Henry Anderson (knee), corner Darius Butler (ankle), corner Antonio Cromartie (hamstring), guard Jonotthan Harrison (back), defensive tackle Zach Kerr (foot), defensive end Kendall Langford (knee), receiver T.Y. Hilton (knee), linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (non-injury/rest), and quarterback Andrew Luck (shoulder).
Luck’s presence on the injury report raised eyebrows early in the week before Luck told NFL Network’s James Palmer that the Colts intend to list him on the injury report just about every week this season, Belichick style.
The injuries to the Colts’ defensive backfield are almost too numerous. Six secondary players are listed on the report. Three are already out while the other three are questionable.
Most notably, top cornerback Vontae Davis has been dealing with an ankle injury since training camp. He’s among those who already know they won’t be playing this weekend, and he could be in line to miss even more time this season.
Essentially, just about everybody on this Colts’ roster is already knicked up, which should bode well for a much healthier Denver Broncos squad.
FIVE MATCH-UPS TO WATCH
1: T.Y. Hilton versus Chris Harris, Jr.- Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. has often said he was born to cover quick, ball-of-fire wide receivers like T.Y. Hilton.
Two years ago, after then-defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s game-plan didn’t Harris being matched up with Hilton during a playoff loss to the Colts in Denver, he spoke about his frustration not getting to use his compact frame and sublime technique to blanket the Colts’ top receiving weapon.
“He’s small and shifty. That’s what God put me on this earth for—to cover guys like him,” Harris told Denver 7’s Troy Renck in 2015, then of the Denver Post. “I was definitely irritated.”
Last year, new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips didn’t make the same mistake. Harris was asked to blanket Hilton for most of the Broncos’ 27-24 loss in Indianapolis.
It did not go well.
For all his big talk, Harris came up small in that game. Hilton ate his lunch, reeling in five passes for 82-yards, including several critical third down catches to help Indianapolis dominant the time of possession battle 38:39 to 21:21 and secure the victory.
Assuming Hilton plays, if the Broncos are going to win on Sunday, Harris cannot have a repeat performance of that game. With so many injuries, and an already below-average supporting cast, the Colts will be forced to rely on Luck’s arm and put the ball up in the air north of 40 times.
For the Broncos defense to have success, Harris must shut down Luck’s favorite weapon. Last week, in the Colts’ 39-35 loss to the Detroit Lions, Hilton caught 6 passes for 79-yards. The Broncos will be putting themselves in a very precarious position on Sunday if he matches that protection.
Look for Harris to be asked to carry the load in coverage against Hilton. However, Phillips might help from time to time by running zone packages and giving his corners safety help over the top to avoid those trademark long Luck plays.
2: Trevor Siemian versus a banged up Colts secondary-With so many injuries on the back-end of the Colts’ defense, most offensive coordinators and offensive minded head coaches like Gary Kubiak would look to open things up in the air during a game like this.
However, despite an impressive performance in week one, there are still questions about the capabilities of Trevor Siemian, the Broncos second-year quarterback who will be starting just his second NFL game this Sunday.
Those questions shouldn’t scare Kubiak away from doing what’s right.
Even with a banged up Thomas, the Broncos still have the horses in their receiving corps to take advantage of Indianapolis’ deficiencies. Utilizing bunch formations, crossing routes, and plenty of play-action should be enough to confuse the Colts’ secondary and open more than enough passing lanes for Siemian to have the first 200-yard game of his NFL career.
In particular, tight end Virgil Green could be lined up for a big game with No. 2 Jeff Heuerman still dealing with the aftereffects of an ankle injury he suffered during training camp.
Whether Siemian has the talent to be a top-flight quarterback in this league is still up for debate. However, there’s little doubt he has the skill-set to play within Kubiak’s offensive scheme, which has proven itself over the years to be very beneficial to young quarterbacks working within it. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said as much.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Pagano said of Siemian Monday. “He’s got arm-talent. Obviously, he’s very bright. He gets them in the right play…he’s a perfect fit for coach Kubes’ system. It reminds me of all the times I’ve had to face coach Kubes and that offense and they do a great job. It’s a great system and it’s very difficult to defend. Trev did a nice job. It looks like they’ve got a guy there who is more than capable.”
With C.J. Anderson knocking down the Colts’ front-seven in the running game and Siemian targeting a weak back-end, the Broncos offense could be in for quite a day on Sunday.
3: Dwayne Allen and Jack Doyle versus Brandon Marshall, Todd Davis, T.J. Ward, and Darian Stewart-Covering athletic tight ends is always one of the most difficult things to do for a defense. Forcing linebackers and safeties to match-up with quality tight ends can sometimes be a chore. Unfortunately for the Broncos, Indianapolis has two tight ends capable of putting considerable wounds in a defensive game plan.
Dwayne Allen has been a factor ever since coming into the league with Andrew Luck in 2012. However, only in the last year or so has the potential he’s always possessed developed into statistical success.
Last week, Allen caught four balls for 53-yards and a touchdown.
The 26-year-old would be enough of a concern for the Broncos’ defensive coaching staff by himself. However, he’s not by himself.
In 2013, the Colts signed undrafted tight end Jack Doyle after he had been cut by the Tennessee Titans. Doyle, a native son of Indianapolis, sat at or near the bottom of the Colts’ depth chart for the first two years of his career.
During the offseason, former Colts tight end Colby Fleener left for greener pastures in New Orleans, which has opened up numerous opportunities for Doyle in the Colts’ passing attack.
Last week against the Lions, Doyle caught two touchdown passes in addition to another grab, giving him three total catches for 35-yards and those two scores. Covering him in the red area will be critically important for the Broncos this weekend.
The players handling that task will likely be safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart as well as linebackers Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall.
Marshall has spent most of his week in the public eye after choosing to kneel during the national anthem as part of an ongoing protest against social and racial injustice in the United States. He’s said repeatedly during the week that his protest won’t be a distraction come game day.
If that’s the case, covering the Colts’ tight ends should be his top priority in passing situations. However, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips admitted that the key to stopping those two dynamic threats is limiting the effectiveness of the man throwing them the football.
“Luck goes to whoever’s open,” Phillips said. “That’s what really good quarterbacks do, but he feels comfortable with his tight ends, which not every quarterback does. He three three touchdowns to the tight ends, but those other guys open up the game for him. They had a 55-yard completion. Those guys make big plays. 30, 40, 50-yard completions. So he has both those weapons, and he’s able to get the ball to them.”
4: Broncos’ interior pass rush versus Colts’ offensive line-Von Miller has sacked just about every quarterback in pro football. He’s beat up Brady, ransacked Rivers, and demolished Dalton. Yet, for all his greatness, Miller has never recorded a sack on Andrew Luck.
“I got close, but he just has that knack for keeping his eyes downfield, feeling the defense and still making great passes,” Miller said. “This year, he looks even better. He’s able to roll and not have two guys on him and throw the crazy passes. Andrew Luck is definitely one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League.”
Part of the reason Luck has been such a difficult get for Miller is his ability to read the rush and sense pressure while delivering the ball in the pocket.
As evidenced by the below play series from last weekend’s Lion’s game, Luck has an uncanny ability to sense edge pressure from either side and step up through it to complete passes deep downfield.
Snippet of my #Colts film study from the condensed TV copy. Spoiler: Andrew Luck is really, really, really, good. pic.twitter.com/DDNb8hZxJd
— Jake Marsing (@JakeDMarsing) September 12, 2016
Luck’s pocket presence makes it next to impossible for edge rushers like Miller and cohort DeMarcus Ware to get to him. To compensate, the Broncos will have to generate pressure up the interior of the Colts offensive line with their defensive ends and nose tackles.
With Derek Wolfe dealing with a neck injury, he’ll likely be somewhat ineffective on Sunday. In his place, Jared Crick, Sly Williams, and Adam Gotsis will have to find a way to win their match-ups and get home on a fairly regular basis. Thankfully, that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.
The Colts’ offensive line is worlds above where they were last season. However, that’s not saying much. This line is still awful, and their deficiencies really show up in the guards and center group that will be matching up with the Broncos’ interior rushers.
Rookie center Ryan Kelly, the Colts’ top draft pick last April, has the potential to be a good player in this league for some time. However, he’s extremely raw. Last week, pro football focus graded Kelly as the 15th best center in the NFL. He struggles with consistency in his technique and had some trouble opening holes in the run game. Getting around him when he’s pass protecting will be critical for Denver’s success this weekend.
Meanwhile, guards Jack Mewhort and Denzelle Good had issues of their own last week. They were ranked 22nd and 36th at their position by pro football focus and struggled to do just about anything effectively consistently. Winning against those two should be the goal for Wade Phillips and his defense this weekend.
5: Andrew Luck versus the World-Let’s face it, these Colts aren’t very good. Their defense wouldn’t be any good if it was completely healthy, their offensive line is porous, and Frank Gore, their leading running back, will turn approximate 138-years-old next year. This entire team rests on the shoulders of their quarterback.
Thankfully for the Colts, their quarterback is pretty darn good.
Andrew Luck won’t just be competing against the Broncos on Sunday, he’ll be trying to overcome the deficiencies of what might just be one of the worst rosters in the NFL. Thankfully, history is on his side.
The Colts have a knack for beating this Broncos squad and if the Colts are able to keep upright and give him time in the pocket, Luck has all the ability necessary to make this into a game.
Colts: 24, Broncos: 27
This game won’t be the drubbing some expect, Andrew Luck is simply too good for that. He’ll make four or five “how did he do that” plays in this game at critical moments to keep his team in it and force the Broncos into tough situations.
Trevor Siemian, C.J. Anderson, and company shouldn’t have much of a problem on the offensive side, even with an injured Demaryius Thomas. But, this Broncos defense is in for a serious challenge.
Look for the Broncos to get out to an early lead and hang on tight as Luck yet again wills his team back into the game in the second half before falling just short at the end.