• BRONCOS VS. COLTS / SUNDAY 4:40 P.M. EST
IF YOU had told Colts coach Chuck Pagano, in the hours after news broke of outside linebacker Robert Mathis's torn left Achilles in September, that his defense would end up allowing 342.7 yards per game (11th best in the NFL) and a respectable 23.1 points (19th), you might have heard a knee-buckling sigh of relief. Heading into this season, no defense was more dependent on one player than Indianapolis's was on Mathis. The reigning NFL sack leader was the sole source of speed in the pass rush.
Fortunately, the Colts have two superb man-to-man corners on the outside: Vontae Davis, who this year was the NFL's most impressive defensive back not named Revis, and Greg Toler, a former Cardinal who bounced back from an injury-riddled 2013 to discover the consistency that had eluded him for much of his six-year career. With this strong perimeter coverage, Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky could manufacture pressure packages to compensate for Mathis's absence. Through energy and scheme, the Colts produced 41 sacks, tied with three other teams (including the Broncos) for ninth in the league.
Though Pagano, a defensive guru, would probably hate to admit it, his defense's break-even performance was more than satisfactory given that he has Andrew Luck under center. But there are questions about whether the Colts' D can continue to break even in the postseason. In their five losses they gave up 31 points to the Broncos, 30 to the Eagles, 51 to the Steelers, 42 to the Patriots and 42 to the Cowboys. This is a defense that beats up on the meek and takes beatings from the elite.
The theme in those losses: Indy's linebackers and safeties were exploited in space. In the Denver game the Colts gave up three second-quarter touchdowns to tight end Julius Thomas, who, often out of an uncharacteristic two-tight-end package for the Broncos, drew matchups against linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and safety LaRon Landry out wide. Against Philadelphia it was backup linebacker Josh McNary's failing to cover running backs and tight ends. The Pittsburgh game can be tossed out; Ben Roethlisberger happened to have one of the greatest first-half quarterbacking performances in history. But three weeks later the Colts were overmatched against a New England power running game that featured six offensive linemen and breakout bruiser Jonas Gray (37 carries, 201 yards).
The run defense showed marked improvements in the Week 16 loss to Dallas, but it didn't matter against a well-designed passing game that managed to, among other things, isolate Landry and outflank the Colts when they dabbled in zones.
The formula is clear. To beat Indy, you either run between the tackles or, if that doesn't work—and it doesn't always, as the defensive line is not awful—attack their interior pass defenders.
For the Colts, the formula is to win on the outside in man coverage, overcome a neutered pass rush through third-down blitz designs and, ultimately, capitalize on some outstanding Luck.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Percentage of Indy opponents' red-zone drives that ended in TDs, worst in the NFL.
INDIANAPOLIS'S PASSING GAME
Andrew Luck's 297.6 passing yards per game (third most in the NFL) are all the more impressive considering that opposing defenses have shown no respect for the Colts' putrid rushing attack. Foes regularly play two safeties over the top—something Luck is sure to see again against the Broncos. With an extra safety helping out, Denver's corners will be able to trail receivers underneath, aligning themselves directly in the passing lanes. They'll especially do this against top target T.Y. Hilton, defending him with either quickness (Chris Harris) or size (Aqib Talib). Luck will instead have to work the ball to ancillary targets like tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen or Dan Herron out of the backfield—something he did several times in the wild-card win over the Bengals.