By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — The respected evaluation website Pro Football Focus gave Colts cornerback Vontae Davis a +7.9 grade for his work Sunday night, the highest score ever awarded to a defensive back facing Peyton Manning.
But that's about the only number from Indianapolis' 39-33 victory against the previously unbeaten Denver Broncos that adds up.
The Colts allowed 429 yards of total offense, and Manning threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns. Of the Broncos' 23 first downs, 19 came through the air. Denver's top receivers — Demaryius Thomas (four catches for 82 yards), Wes Welker (7-96) and Eric Decker (8-150) — each had big statistical nights.
But it's what's not in the numbers that counts.
The Broncos' point total was 11 fewer than its season average. Welker was held without a touchdown for the first time in seven games since signing with Denver. And the league's most potent offense never found the sort of rhythm that had marked its fast and furious start.
Indianapolis prides itself on winning as a team, and no one unit can claim responsibility for Sunday's epic upset.
Manning never was the same after a hard hit from the blindside by Robert Mathis on a second-quarter sack that resulted in a safety. And the front seven played an outstanding game with four sacks and an interception by inside linebacker Pat Angerer to its credit.
But it was the secondary — self nicknamed as the "No Fly Zone" — that raised the most eyebrows. The Colts' defensive backs got physical with Denver's receivers throughout the game, bumping them off their intended routes and wreaking havoc with Manning's beloved timing.
The secondary especially lived up to its colorful moniker over the middle, where it severely slowed the quick passing game that is the staple of the Broncos' attack.
"If you force (Manning) to make outside throws, it's tougher and it gives us a little more time to adjust and play that ball," nickelback Darius Butler said. "I would probably say that's probably the philosophy for a lot of defensive players, to make them beat you outside rather than inside."
Butler was a key cog in that effort, primarily assigned to Welker — his former teammate with the New England Patriots. With his safety blanket in the seam mostly unavailable for the first three quarters, Manning grew increasingly frustrated against the Colts' defense.
Ironically, the seeds for Butler's big night were sown during a 59-35 loss against Welker and the Patriots last year at New England.
"We went back and we watched the New England game last year where he kind of got us," Indianapolis secondary coach Mike Gillhamer said. "I think Darius took it as a challenge that he could get it done, and he did."
The Colts boast the league's sixth-best scoring defense this season — despite playing star quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers in addition to Manning — and their success has come through the unity of their team.
When strong safety LaRon Landry — who returned with a vengeance against the Broncos — missed four games, reserve Delano Howell ably stepped into his place. And Indianapolis had to call on its bench often against Denver.
Injuries to starting corner Greg Toler, reserve Josh Gordy and Butler forced the Colts to get creative at times. Cassius Vaughn and Sergio Brown were among the players who stepped into the void and made plays, and free safety Antoine Bethea even moved to nickelback at one point in the fourth quarter.
"It was one after another," head coach Chuck Pagano said of the injuries in the defensive backfield. "They'd come off the field and they'd tape something up, go inside, do whatever they had to do and get back out there and do just enough to hold on."
Davis, meanwhile, was the lone constant.
He blanketed Thomas, Manning's top receiver, allowing just four catches on nine targets. And his play is just the continuation of a trend that began in the latter part of 2012.
It took Davis awhile to find his bearings after being traded for a second-round pick from the Miami Dolphins just before the start of the regular season. By the end of the campaign, he was beginning to flash the elite coverage skills that general manager Ryan Grigson coveted.
Through seven games in 2013, Davis has emerged as a defensive leader.
"He's getting better and better with every game," Pagano said. "He's a confident guy. He's got that mental makeup that you need to play out there on that island, and he's not afraid of anything."
The last attribute also applies to an Indianapolis team that has beaten NFC favorites Seattle and San Francisco in addition to the Broncos this season.
The Colts headed into this week's bye with a 5-2 record and a two-game lead in the AFC South. And they're determined to keep hold of their momentum through the off week.
"We got something special here, we got something special going on," Pagano said. "We certainly won't take any of the good things that have happened to this point for granted. We won't lose sight of where we want to go and what it's going to take to get there. So they will stay locked in (during the bye week). They'll be away, but they won't be away."