DENVER (AP) – Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy and now Marshawn Lynch.
This otherwise fearsome foursome — an enviable group of running backs that collectively rushed for nearly 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns last season even with Lynch on a one-year hiatus – has been bruised, battered, bombarded and bulldozed by the Broncos in 2017.
Denver limited Lynch to a dozen yards on nine carries Sunday in a 16-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders, who gained just 24 yards on the ground.
“Our run defense has been stout the entire year,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “So, I have been very proud of how those guys have played the run. With a back like that and an offensive line like that, that’s really special, 24 yards.”
Nose tackle Domata Peko, the gem of Denver’s offseason free-agent additions, marveled, “We’re going against guys who have been to Pro Bowls and we’re shutting them down. It’s been great. Big shout-out to the defensive line and the front seven. Shout out to our defense, because stopping the run is not just up front, it’s the whole team. This defense is playing great.”
Together, Gordon, Elliott, McCoy and Lynch managed a measly 96 yards on 49 carries for a 1.9-yard average and zero touchdowns against the Broncos (3-1).
“That’s really four special backs and really four special offensive lines,” Joseph said. “Our run defense has been really stout.”
Joseph noted the additions of Peko, Zack Kerr and Ahtyba Rubin along with a change in coaching philosophy have been the big difference this season.
Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, who led Denver’s 143-yard rushing effort with 95 yards on 20 carries, saw something special in training camp as Joseph and new coordinator Joe Woods installed a more aggressive run defense.
Anderson said Denver’s linebackers “are playing the run completely different this year.”
“I’m not going to go into detail and give up how they’re playing the run, we’ll let you guys figure that out … but they play the run completely different this year and I think that’s what’s helping them,” Anderson said. “I noticed that maybe the first three or four days in training camp because of the way they were making us cut.”
OK, so here’s what Denver’s doing differently:
Peko replaced Sylvester Williams and is playing the same responsible, consistently good defense he did all those years in Cincinnati. He’s never getting his hips turned and he’s absolutely eating up double teams.
Inside linebackers Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall are playing closer to the line of scrimmage on early downs, attacking the ball instead of inching back in the read-and-react style they played under former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
This means the guards have to account for the linebackers and that, in turns, means defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis are getting way fewer double teams than they used to.
Add outside linebackers Von Miller and Shaq Barrett pinching the edges and keeping the backs from bouncing outside.
Of course, they’re able to load the box because cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby can cover anyone 1-on-1.
The result is that since ever Gordon reeled off a 21-yard run on his first carry in the opener, the Broncos have allowed opponents’ lead backs a paltry 1.5 yards per carry.
Denver’s inability to stuff the run last season defanged their famed “No Fly Zone” secondary and premier pass rush and ushered in an end to their five-year playoff run.
It’s what’s guiding their turnaround this season.
“I think the energy and culture is different” this year, Miller suggested.
The Broncos have manhandled two of the best offensive lines in wins over the Raiders (2-2) and Cowboys in a three-week span.
“We just have the mindset that we don’t care if they’re the best,” Barrett said. “We want to be the best defense, and in order for us to be the best defense, we have to take out all the top dogs on offense. We have those guys on our schedule, so we can prove against the top offensive lines that we are great.”
Notes: In addition to QB Derek Carr (back), Raiders CB David Amerson left the game with a concussion.
By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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