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Broncos D grinds up one ground game after another


ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **Teams want to run on the Broncos. Oh, how they try.

They want to shorten the game, a tactic more often attributed to basketball, but one that does apply to football. They hope to limit possessions, and with it, opportunities for the explosive offense.

But one foe after struggles to do it.

In the past six games, no opponent gained more than 66 rushing yards against the Broncos. Just one averaged more than 3.4 yards per carry. Denver's front seven -- with support from back-end defenders like Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and T.J. Ward, none of whom is timid about attacking the run -- make running on the Broncos tougher than navigating roads after a Georgia snowstorm.

For the entire season, opponents average just 3.19 yards per carry and 67.0 rushing yards per game. Both figures lead the league. In the last six games, those averages are 2.68 and 47.8 yards.

And yet there are doubts in some circles that the performance is a result of teams under pressure to throw the football to keep pace with Peyton Manning and the offense.

That's poppycock to Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio.

"One of the things that I hear a lot -- which I don't particularly agree with -- is that, 'You're doing that, but your offense gets ahead, so people don't really have to run, or want to run.' No," said Del Rio.

"Actually, they want to run and keep the ball away from Peyton. So it's what teams want to do every week when we go against them. We know that we can't allow that, and that you want to get Peyton the ball as often as possible."

This isn't just a one-year thing, either. Since Del Rio became the Broncos' defensive coordinator in 2012, no team has allowed fewer 100-yard rushers than the Broncos, with just four individual triple-digit performances against them -- two of which came during his first five games on the job.

Under Del Rio, the Broncos lead the league in rushing defense in both yards per game (89.93) and yardage allowed per carry (3.64). The per-game figure is 23.57 yards better than the league average; the per-carry figure is 0.55 yards better.

But this year is at another level. The maturation and health of the defensive line is a factor. Defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson are in their third year on the roster. Starting defensive tackles Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams are in their second.

The run defense's improvement from good to dominant in October grew from their development, and the cohesion as linebacker Brandon Marshall, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and other newcomers became comfortable.

"At the beginning, it was a little rocky at first because guys were getting used to who fits in the 'B' gap, who fits in the 'A' gap, how do we play certain run plays," said Ware. "Now we know how teams are going to attack us and now just really just playing downhill and doing it like we should."

Before the snap, they communicate with a nod or a gesture. The defensive line and Brandon Marshall are among the league's best at identifying blocking schemes as they develop. And with Knighton able to occupy two blockers, Marshall is free to attack and fill gaps, allowing him to lead the Broncos in total tackles.

"You've got to know the guys next to you, you've got to know how he plays, you know what he sees, and how he watches film," said Knighton. "The good thing is a guy like me and Derek [Wolfe] and Malik [Jackson], we see the same things on film. So Wolfe will give me that look, he'll give me a nod and we see the same things.

"We play off each other and the same thing with Sly (Williams), so as long as we're on the same page and we're all out there trying to achieve one team goal, we should continue to be successful against the run."

Injuries to Danny Trevathan and Nate Irving had no appreciable effect; the Broncos inserted Brandon Marshall and Steven Johnson, and last Sunday moved Ward into the box when they went into their sub-package alignment. The operation kept on humming.

"We've had a couple different (line)backers in there so we've worked through a transition there," Del Rio said. "We've worked hard to bring them up to speed. We work hard to get our backups ready anyway and that part of it has been beneficial.

And a pursuit of perfection, to where even modest gains rankle the defense. It doesn't want to contain; it aspires to dominate, and force an opponent to give up on that phase of its offense.

"At one point in the (Raiders) game, they had about 20 yards rushing," said Knighton, "and we felt like that was too much."

And that was in a game in which the Broncos held the opponent without a first down for the first time since a 1997 shutout of the Carolina Panthers. If that sort of performance leaves them wanting more, who knows what kind of lockdown game they might have in the future?

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