DENVER -- Teams pass more than ever. There are fewer 100-yard rushing performances through three weeks of the NFL season than at any time since the league expanded to 32 teams, and that trend seems unlikely to change in the near future.
But stopping the run still matters. Neutralizing the run game might not completely dismantle an offense, but it makes your job as defenders easier when you've eliminated the run as a possibility -- especially when your foe would prefer to stick to the ground, if given the choice.
For the third time this season, the Broncos played one of those teams whose instinct is to try and establish the running game. For the third time, Denver's defensive line crashed through blockers, won the majority of one-on-one matchups and virtually eliminated the ground game as viable threat, setting the stage for a 37-21 rout of the Raiders on Monday.
But unlike in wins over the Ravens and Giants, Oakland had previous production this year to back up its hopes of beating the Broncos on the ground. Aside from a 23-yard zone-read option sprint to the left by Terrelle Pryor, those hopes evaporated as quickly as Denver's constantly shuffling front four shredded Oakland's offensive line and met Darren McFadden in the backfield over and over again.
Denver's run defense is the league's stingiest, giving up just 43.3 yards per game, and as long as the Broncos sustain their equation of an attacking front four and an offense that sprints to leads, that status seems unlikely to change, as opponents will have little reason to persist with a futile quest that doesn't bring them closer to success. There's plenty of reasons for this, starting with the massive first-team tackle duo of Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton and fanning out to the rest of the front-line complement.
"I've got a big guy next to me (Knighton) that's helping me clog stuff up," said Vickerson. "(It's) a good 1-2-3 punch with me, him and Mitch (Unrein) and Sly (Williams) rolling up in there. It's fresh bodies, and we're just trying to do what we do inside, wreck the middle."
They wrecked the Raiders' interior offensive line, and then did the same to McFadden, who once turned shredding the Broncos into an art form. In 2010-11, he averaged 144.7 yards in his three games against the Broncos; the Raiders won them all and rang up 121 points in the process. Since then, the Raiders have lost four in a row to Denver, and he's gained just 95 yards -- including a mere nine on 12 carries Monday, when he was more effective as a passer than a runner.
The Broncos have now allowed just 87 yards to opposing running backs this season. That meager tally isn't because of a lack of attempts; it's come on 52 carries, for a paltry 1.67 yards per rush. And since the Giants gained 10 yards on their first two carries Sept. 15, McFadden, David Wilson, Da'Rel Scott and Brandon Jacobs have a per-carry average that is better measured by inches (27.3) than yards (0.76).
"I expect that with the big boys up front," said cornerback Chris Harris. "We don't think anybody can run on us. We expect to make teams one-dimensional and make them throw on us, and with the offense putting up points, that's what teams are going to have to do. If we stop the run, it's going to be a long day for teams."
But one-dimensional hasn't meant a lack of production at Denver's expense. Through the air, the Broncos are allowing 327.0 yards per game; if that pace holds, the Broncos will allow 5,232 yards -- over 1,000 more than the previous club high, in 1994.
Only two teams have allowed more, and of the bottom eight teams in passing yardage allowed, only the Broncos have more than one win. That's what Peyton Manning and a stout run defense can do.
Still, those yards rankle the Broncos -- even though plenty have come after the they've built a comfortable lead. Monday was a prime example of this. The Raiders averaged just 3.31 yards on their first 16 plays in falling behind 17-0. On their last 35 plays -- all of which were run with a deficit of 17 or more points -- they averaged 8.26 yards per snap.
The Broncos followed Oakland's first two touchdowns with scoring marches of their own, hitting the end zone four and eight plays, respectively, after the Raiders' two scores. The Raiders' increased production didn't matter in the final result.
But to the Broncos, it did, and they weren't willing to use the absences of Von Miller and Champ Bailey as an excuse. The Raiders weren't capable of a comeback after the defense let up, but other teams might be: the Cowboys, Colts, Chiefs, Patriots and Texans in particular.
"For us to turn the corner as a defense and as a whole unit, we need to put the foot down on the throat and keep it there," said defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson.
"We stopped 'em, we stoned 'em, we shouldn't give them nothing the whole game, so why give it to them at this point late in the game? So it's about finishing games and just getting off the field and finishing the job. You just want to finish the game."
But so far, the Broncos have done more than enough, starting by eliminating half of an offense's playbook.
"Defensively, we played well. There were a few plays that we shouldn't have given up," safety Rahim Moore said. "But today was a good day. We got off (the field) on third down. We stopped the run.
"Whenever you win, you do something right."
That's true, but the defense knows there's more it can do.