It’s not that the Broncos’ run defense was bad in the first five weeks of the season, in the aggregate — just mediocre. When the Broncos were 2-3, they ranked 21st in rushing yardage per game allowed (120.2) and 11th in yardage per carry against (3.8).
Since Week 6, when the Broncos began their nine-game winning streak, it’s been the best — not just in yardage per game (74.8), but yardage per carry permitted (3.4). Only one running back has gained 100 yards against the Broncos since Week 6 — Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs, who, not coincidentally, are the only team to hit triple digits in rushing against the Broncos since the Patriots did on Oct. 7.
By shutting down an array of backs that included tormentors of previous years (San Diego’s Ryan Mathews and Oakland’s Darren McFadden), bellwethers of the present (Cincinnati’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart and Baltimore’s Ray Rice) and stars of the future (Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin), the run defense has done enough to prove its worth against an array of running and blocking styles, while rendering opponents one-dimensional.
“Going up against the top running backs — that’s what we hang our hat on,” said linebacker Wesley Woodyard.
But to the Broncos, their success against the run was just a matter of time.
“Run fits are all about being where you’re supposed to be and just taking care of your responsibility, all seven guys up front. It takes some work,” said linebacker Keith Brooking.
“You’ve seen us evolve and become familiar with the system and where we’re supposed to be, and when you’re playing that way and being confident, you’re able to play faster, more aggressive and physical, and those are all the ingredients for a great run defense. You’re starting to see that now.”
Added defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson: “The technique was the technique; we found that out in camp (and) OTAs, so we had time to get that. As the season progressed, we got sharper. So I think it’s a good thing of us working together and being accountable for each other.”
One key lineup change was made in Week 6 after the Patriots gashed the Broncos for 251 rushing yards: the insertion of Brooking as the first-team, full-time middle linebacker in place of Joe Mays.
Brooking, a 15th-year veteran, has been a steadying influence in his role, which has mainly been limited to the Broncos’ base-package alignments, with Danny Trevathan or D.J. Williams entering when the Broncos go into their nickel package. However, Brooking downplays his impact.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with me being at ‘mike’ (middle linebacker),” Brooking said. “I think it has a lot to do with just guys growing and learning the system.”
“This is a new system that Jack (Del Rio) brought here, and you have OTAs and minicamps and training camps to get familiar with everyone, but nothing beats live action — not just in the preseason, but in the regular season — and obviously the game changes dramatically during that time of the year. So it took us a few weeks to get our feet wet and learn the system.”
It’s doubtful they can do much better than they have been, and the challenges the next two weeks are stern: Cleveland rookie Trent Richardson and, in Week 17, Charles.
“You don’t score 11 touchdowns by mistake,” cornerback Champ Bailey said of Richardson. “I mean, this guy’s a pounder.
“You get running backs like the one we’ve got to face this week, they’ll make you miss. We know we’ve got to get him on the ground and eliminate their big runs.”
Missed tackles — although not against the run — were a point of emphasis this week, since whiffs allowed Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns last Sunday, turning a 28-point evisceration into a 17-point win that was notable, but didn’t raise quite as many eyebrows.
“I remember after the game, the Ravens were talking about how they started late, got going late, and really, it was all about us and what we weren’t doing. We make that tackle, it’s nothing,” Bailey said.
“We’re very aware of it, and we don’t like it. If we’ve got somebody down, we want to make sure they stay down.”
The Broncos have succeeded at that far more often than not, eliminating half of an opposing offense easily in recent weeks. If they continue doing that, the Super Bowl will be their destination.