Thursday night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos will pit two injury-plagued teams dealing with struggling offenses, and each is fairly hungry for a victory.
Both teams kept their seasons afloat with big victories over serious contenders in Week 3. But in Week 4, each came up short in divisional losses and they will need to deal with their significant injuries going into a quick turnaround.
On paper, a Matt Ryan-Russell Wilson matchup looks pretty appealing. But both have had their share of growing pains with their new franchises (even if Wilson looks to be on the upswing), and they each are dealing with big concerns on the offensive side of the ball.
Too early to say that this appears to be a critical game for both teams and their respective coaches? We don’t believe so.
Here are four things to watch for when the Colts visit the Broncos on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Both run games are hurting. The Colts and Broncos were expected to be run-heavy squads after finishing 2021 as the second- and 10th-ranked teams, respectively, in yards per carry. Injuries to Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (ankle), who has been ruled out for this game, and Broncos RB Javonte Williams (out for season with torn ACL) have changed that, but it's not as if either team was dominating on the ground prior to them getting hurt. The Colts' run-game struggles have been shocking. Taylor's longest run so far this season is 21 yards, and he has just one touchdown through four games after leading the league in that category in 2021. Indy's other two backs, Nyheim Hines and Deon Jackson, have a combined 10 rushes for 8 yards. The offensive line -- which takes up nearly 20% of the Colts' salary cap -- has also been a shell of its former self. Denver has real issues, too. Williams was Denver's most trusted runner, partly because Melvin Gordon has fumbled four times this season, often in critical spots. They turned to Mike Boone late last week and have signed Latavius Murray off the Saints' practice squad, so it will be fascinating to see how they divvy up the carries versus the Colts, who have defended the run pretty well this season even with Derrick Henry rushing for 99 yards Sunday.
- Each team must replace a defensive stalwart. Thursday's game will be a roster stretch for both teams, but not just on the offensive side of the ball. Shaquille Leonard had just returned to the Colts' lineup last week, but after 16 snaps the All-Pro linebacker suffered a concussion and a broken nose in the loss to the Titans. After ruling out Leonard for Thursday, the Colts have three healthy LBs in Bobby Okereke, Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed, who must step up again, but none of them cover and make plays the way Leonard can. Perhaps Denver tight end Eric Saubert is a sneaky option to make a play or two after flashing on a 25-yard catch Sunday. The Broncos placed edge rusher Randy Gregory (knee) on injured reserve, so they'll need more pass-rush juice from Bradley Chubb, who has been quiet since a two-sack game in Week 1, and Baron Browning, who is looking for his first NFL sack after shifting to more of a pass-rush role this season. If the Colts struggle to block a Gregory-less front, the concern meter will raise even more.
- Is Russell Wilson turning the corner? Can Matt Ryan join him? Last week was Wilson’s best game as a Bronco, throwing for two scores and running for another. He threw with more conviction and was more willing to use his legs than he had the first three games. Not having Williams in the backfield could make it easier for the Colts to defend him, but Wilson appears to be settling in after some early bumps. But Ryan, following a strong game-winning drive against the Chiefs in Week 3, lost a first-quarter fumble that led to a Titans TD, took another sack-fumble that knocked the Colts out of field-goal range and threw a pick deep in his own zone that gave Tennessee another TD and a 24-3 lead. Slow starts offensively have been a huge problem for Indy. In 22 first-half drives, the Colts have two TDs (one after a turnover at the Chiefs’ 4-yard line), three field goals, 10 punts, three interceptions, two lost fumbles and two turnovers on downs. As with the run game, the Colts’ O-line must shoulder some blame. Ryan’s ball security -- five INTs, nine fumbles (three lost) -- also cannot go overlooked. The margin of error for this Colts offense is small enough with everyone healthy, so Ryan must be a better caretaker here, even if Denver has only four takeaways in 2022.
- Head coaches feeling pressure. Is Frank Reich on the hot seat? Could Nathaniel Hackett be one and done? Both statements are premature. But both coaches will feel major pressure if things don’t change quickly. Reich has a 38-30-1 coaching mark and two playoff appearances in his four-plus seasons in Indy. Considering the way last season ended and given how this one has started, it’s not wild to speculate on Reich’s status. Right now, 20% of the Colts’ offensive drives are resulting in a turnover. That’s a hallmark of an undisciplined club -- and a trend that must end if they want to start winning games. Hackett got off to a rough start with his late-game decisions in the Week 1 loss at Seattle, and his reputation as an offensive guru has yet to be realized in Denver, averaging 14 points per game. Plus, there’s a lack of discipline. The Broncos have committed a league-worst 37 penalties, a whopping 15 of which have been of the pre-snap variety. After 25 penalties in their first two games, Denver has cleaned things up some, but it’s clear this isn’t yet a tightly run ship. Reich can rightly point to his prior teams’ slow starts in 2018 (1-5) and 2021 (1-4) as proof that hope isn’t lost; both of those Colts clubs ended up in the playoffs. Hackett has time on his side, too. This will be his fifth game, and no matter what anyone says, that’s too small a sample size to draw massive conclusions about his future. Both head coaches remain gainfully employed but also on hot-seat watch with their teams starting slowly.