ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Well, for six NFL weeks it was largely sunshine and rainbows for the Denver Broncos offense and the team’s defense enjoyed the comforts of playing with the lead because of it. Then the Indianapolis Colts played far more aggressively on Sunday night than any of the Broncos’ first six opponents did, on both sides of the ball, and made it work in Denver's first loss of the season.
But after a long look at the loss to the Colts, here are some thoughts on the Broncos' defense and special teams:
The Broncos are considered an aggressive all-around defense, willing to take a few risks to create the mismatch defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio is looking to manufacture on any given snap. That’s especially true in the defensive front when the Broncos are consistently looking to get up the field and influence the comfort level of opposing quarterbacks in the pocket. The Colts, however, did better than most this season at folding the Broncos' edge players toward the middle of the field to create some run lanes on the outside. The Colts pinned Von Miller on one Donald Brown run early in the opening quarter, got Derek Wolfe pinned inside later in the game and got Shaun Phillips turned inside on wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey’s 30-yard jaunt around the right end early in the fourth quarter. On Heyward-Bey’s run the Broncos were in their base 4-3 formation and didn’t have Miller in the formation -- the Broncos had Danny Trevathan, Paris Lenon and Nate Irving at the three linebacker spots. It was one of just four snaps Miller was not in the game. With the Redskins’ top-shelf traditional zone run game to go with what quarterback Robert Griffin III adds when the Redskins go to a read-option look, the Broncos edge players are going to have to be far more disciplined this week.
With the Redskins on the docket next, the Colts' success with quarterback Andrew Luck using the bootleg will deserve some attention as well. Luck consistently found the Colts running backs and tight ends free in the pass pattern when Indianapolis played out of heavier looks. For the game the Colts backs and tight ends finished with nine receptions combined for 100 yards, a total that included a 20-yard catch and run from fullback Stanley Havili. Half of Havili’s receiving yards for the season came on that play.
Rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster continues to move up the depth chart because he plays with discipline in his assignments as well as confidence in his approach, and when he has a chance to make a play on a ball he does. Webster initially cracked the team’s dime formation -- six defensive backs. He then moved past Tony Carter to get into the nickel package with Champ Bailey sidelined with a foot injury. And Sunday he was used in place of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in a variety of defensive packages against the Colts’ bulkier personnel groupings. Webster has shown the coveted combination of being able to run with the fastest receivers in man coverage and play with a physical edge up around the line of scrimmage as well as on special teams. That’s also why he played 31 snaps on special teams Sunday to go with 53 snaps on defense. But Webster appeared on defense in both the nickel and dime in place of Rodgers-Cromartie in the first quarter. Webster also appeared in the base formation, with Chris Harris at the other cornerback spot, on first and second downs during the Colts' second possession of the third quarter. Rodgers-Cromartie then came into the game on third down when the Broncos went to the nickel on the next snap, so it is not an injury promotion for Webster. Overall, he has easily been the most productive of the team’s rookie class.
No question Trindon Holliday’s speed -- he is a former NCAA 100 meters champion -- makes many a special-teams coach nervous. But Sunday’s loss did show what those same special-teams coaches hope to do against the Broncos’ mercurial returner to try and slow him down. Despite the risk of Holliday getting the corner and taking it the distance at any time, opponents are far more willing to take their chances with him running side-to-side early in the return in hopes they can pin him to the boundary by the time the help arrives. Most special-teams coaches believe Holliday is most dangerous, especially when he’s working to the short-side of the field, when his first move is up the field and he then works toward the sideline once he slips past the first wave of tacklers. So, when Holliday’s first move takes him toward the sideline opponents then hope the tackler that wraps him first -- because Holliday is just 5-foot-5, 170 pounds -- can then take a swipe at the ball and still maintain control of the tackle. The Colts’ Havili did just that, wrapping up Holliday near the sideline and then ripping the ball free before the two fell to the ground. The Colts recovered at the Broncos’ 11-yard line and scored their first touchdown of the game on the next play from scrimmage.
Despite the number of times the Colts played out of heavier two-back and two-tight end looks, the Broncos stuck to a personnel grouping they like against the pass, but consider it physical enough to slow opposing run games. They went with a three-linebacker, three-linemen look with five defensive backs for 48 snaps in the game -- penalty snaps included. They have rarely used that look during Miller's six-game suspension -- for just three snaps, all three against the Ravens in the opener -- but broke it out again upon Miller's return. Miller usually lines up as a defensive end in the package.