ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Most of the defenses that have lined up against the Denver Broncos this season have chosen to back off, try to take away big plays down the field and make quarterback Peyton Manning pick away at them.
And Manning has gladly done that, with ruthless efficiency. He's had at least 15 completions of 10 yards or fewer in each of the last five games, and at least 18 completions of 10 yards or fewer in four of the last five. Along the way, the Broncos have piled on the touchdowns – Manning’s 23 touchdowns overall are still more than any other team has scored – and Manning is off to the best start of his career.
But if Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky sticks to what he’s done so far this season, the Broncos' top three receivers could be in for a long battle Sunday night with the Colts' top three cornerbacks in aggressive, in-your-face man coverage.
Or as Manning put it: “I have to figure out how to stay away from [defensive end Robert] Mathis and complete some passes [against Vontae] Davis, [Greg] Toler and [Darius] Butler, who I think are really, really good cover corners.’’
It would certainly be a large departure from what Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker have seen much of the time thus far. Teams have played the three in man coverage on a smattering of snaps in games, but the Colts have pressured opposing receivers far more at the line of scrimmage than many of their defensive peers around the league. And it's worked just fine as two of their opponents failed to complete 50 percent of their throws, and third foe managed just a 53 percent completion rate.
The Colts have also surrendered only five touchdown passes this season, or two fewer than Manning threw in the season opener.
It’s a risky maneuver given Thomas’ and Decker’s size – 229 and 214 pounds, respectively – and Welker’s proficiency for escaping man coverage in tight quarters. And the Colts may think better of it as they go through the week and watch Manning’s 74 percent completion rate on video.
But if the Colts' defensive backs come strong with the press coverage, much of what happens in the Broncos’ passing game could be decided in the 5-yard contact zone and by how well Thomas, Decker and Welker make their own room to work.