Preview: Protection critical as Colts face bounce-back test against Broncos

Frank Gore #23 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball against the Denver Broncos during a game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 8, 2015. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Frank Gore #23 of the Indianapolis Colts runs with the ball against the Denver Broncos during a game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 8, 2015. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ Sunday meeting with the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4

Protect, protect, protect: That was a nice first step by the offensive line. Now, do it again. Andrew Luck was afforded solid protection in the opening loss against the Lions, but the Broncos are a different beast, pun intended.

There’s Von Miller, who has 61 sacks in 73 career games and was named MVP of Super Bowl 50 on the strength of 2.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles against Carolina’s Cam Newton. There’s DeMarcus Ware, whose 136 sacks are tied for the most among active players. End Derek Wolfe and backup linebacker Shaquil Barrett combined for 11 a year ago.

“Outstanding defense,’’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. “Really there are no weaknesses. From front to backend, they’ve got great players. They swarm and they’ve got a great scheme.’’

If the Colts are unable to keep Luck out of harm’s way, they have zero chance.

Luck has a 3-1 record against the Broncos, but it’s never been easy. Denver has sacked him six times and hit him on another 30 occasions. When he’s had time, Luck has excelled against the Broncos. In the three wins, he’s averaged 248.3 passing yards per game with seven touchdowns and two interceptions.

More on protection: Let’s not have tunnel vision when it comes to how the Colts hope to protect Luck. Yes, tackles Anthony Castonzo and Joe Reitz have to hold up on the edges, and guards Jack Mewhort and Denzelle Good and center Ryan Kelly must give Luck an interior area to utilize. QBs need to step up to avoid the outside pressure.

But we won’t be surprised if Chudzinski’s game plan, at least until it doesn’t work, includes heavy doses of Frank Gore. A competent ground game is every quarterback’s best friend against a team featuring serious pass-rush threats.

“It gives an offensive lineman a chance to come off the ball instead of sitting back (in protection),’’ Luck said. “Any game when we can run effectively, it helps me.’’

A couple of stats caught our eye. In Luck’s three wins over the Broncos, the Colts have averaged 33 rushes and 113.3 yards. It’s not the average gain – 3.4 – that’s important. It’s the game-long commitment to pounding away at Denver’s defense.

Likewise, Gore is 3-1 against Denver in his career and played a major role in each victory. In the three victories, he’s averaged 29.3 carries and 118 yards. In the Colts’ 27-24 win last season, Gore had a season-high 28 carries that netted 83 yards.

Denver’s defense should be a bit salty Sunday. In its opening win over Carolina, the Panthers gouged them for 157 yards on the ground. That included 54 yards on 11 carries by quarterback Cam Newton.

For those keeping track at home, Gore continues to climb the NFL’s career rushing charts. His 12,099 yards rank No. 14. He needs 22 yards to move into the No. 13 slot ahead of Franco Harris (12,120), 145 to leapfrog Marcus Allen (12,243) and 148 to move past Edgerrin James (12,246) into 11th all-time.

Or course, getting to 100 would be nice. The Colts haven’t had a 100-yard rusher since Vick Ballard in game 14 of the 2012. The 57-game drought, including the playoffs, is the NFL’s longest active streak. While the Colts have had one 100-yard rusher in the last 58 games, the Broncos have had 17.

Test Siemian: Trevor Siemian passed his first test, but hardly was put to the test by the Carolina Panthers. In his second NFL appearance (one kneel down as a rookie) and first start, the 2015 seventh-round draft pick out of Northwestern was more game manager than game changer. Peyton Manning’s successor averaged 6.8 yards per attempt (20th in the league) and 9.9 yards per completion (27th). He was sacked twice, intercepted twice and finished with a 69.1 passer rating.

While those are hardly impactful stats, they were good enough. Credit the influence of C.J. Anderson (4.6 yards on 20 carries) and that nasty defense. It’s incumbent upon the Colts defense to limit Anderson’s influence and force Siemian to make plays. Make his convert a few third-and-7s and deal with a third-and-14.

“It’s a very dangerous running game, so we don’t want that to beat us,’’ said Robert Mathis. “We have to make (Siemian) beat us, per say. We have to do what we do and control every aspect defensive-wise.’’

Yes, we know. The defense gave us little reason to trust it last Sunday. But it’s a new day. If Ted Monachino’s bunch allows Siemian to lean on his running game, it’s going to be a long day in Denver.

Avoiding 0-2?: We’ll make this quick. The Colts are on the verge of opening 0-2 for a third straight season. Would that mean all is lost in their pursuit of a playoff berth? Of course not. But under the current playoff format which was put in place in 1990, only 12 percent of teams that opened 0-2 recovered and reached the postseason. Since 2007, it drops to 9 percent (7 of 75).

The Colts bucked the odds in ’14, but it’s not wise to push the issue.

And the winner is: Broncos 24, Colts 17. For whatever reason, we’re expecting some level of role reversal in Denver. We expect the defense to play well. We expect a Luck-led offense that performed at such a high level against the Lions to have issues. And we expect the Broncos to win.

Yes, a third straight 0-2.