ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos have had to switch their focus quickly with the Thursday night game on the doorstep. Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio discussed the effectiveness of their run defense and facing a team that uses the run to establish their tempo with a strong passing game, and Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase talked about the Broncos' rushing offense finding its footing.
Del Rio looking to slow down Chargers' run game
With opponents recording a total of 130 rushing yards in the past three games for a 43.3-yards-per-game average, the defense has found success and pride in taking the running game out of the equation for teams fighting to stay in the game with the Broncos' high-powered offense.
"I think and what I've talked to our guys about—our pad level and our understanding of where we belong—the tenacity of the front and the tackling has been very good and that's been reflecting in how we slowed those two teams down," Del Rio said. "Those two teams that we slowed down are very good running teams and if you're not on top of your game they can expose you so that was then, good job, but we move on and we look for things that we can continue to work on."
The running game is bound to be a focus for San Diego, who's gotten some solid play from Branden Oliver after injuries sidelined Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown. In last year's Thursday night loss to San Diego, the Broncos gave up 127 yards and a touchdown to Mathews on 29 rushing attempts.
One of the main impacts of their such efficient play was not only keeping the defense on the field and tiring them out, but keeping the Broncos' explosive offense off the field. The Chargers controlled the ball for 23:16 of the 30 minutes played in the second and third quarters in that Thursday game a year ago. Denver punted four times in those quarters and got just a single first down.
But the Broncos didn't let the Chargers repeat that performance later that season in the playoffs. San Diego totaled 65 yards between Mathews, Woodhead and quarterback Philip Rivers for an average of 3.6 yards a carry. The time of possession tilted in the opposite direction, too, with the Broncos holding the ball for 11 more minutes than the Chargers.
"I watched their playoff game when they went into Cincinnati and just mauled them and we knew that would be the challenge in the playoff game," Del Rio said. "They had had success on the Thursday night game prior to that and I thought we were effective in slowing them in the playoff game. It will take that kind of effort. We will have to be effective enough to slow them down and not let them run it as often and as well as they did in the playoff game in Cincinnati or in our game here on Thursday night. It's one of the major keys for the game for sure."
The linebacking corps has been a big part of denying the rushing game, even with knee injuries taking out Danny Trevathan for the near future. Trevathan's injury thrust Brandon Marshall into the starting role, and Marshall has taken on the responsibility with gusto, even leading meetings.
"That's how we meet is that we want our linebackers to run their personnel, make the calls, be strong with it so that the communication takes place in the meeting that we want on the field," Del Rio said. "So he gets plenty of reps doing it and he's getting better at it. I think he's getting more comfortable."
Gase: Hillman getting comfortable, Cornick got good start
Running back Ronnie Hillman found the end zone for the first time of the season against the 49ers, and then followed it up with his second touchdown of the year. The rushing offense has found a bit of a groove in the past couple weeks with Hillman breaking out vs. the Jets for his first career 100-yard game, and averaging over four yards per rush in the past two games.
"You can see he's getting comfortable," Adam Gase said. "And any time, the more you do it, the better you're going to get at it. And I think the more reps we give him and keep him on the field and kind of do the plays to his advantage which we're trying to do, he'll keep having success. His biggest challenge is see how many, if we can get him to stay in there that whole series. I mean getting in that football shape is not easy. It's easy to come out here in practice and take three or four in a row, but we're on an 8-to-10-play drive, can you be that guy to stay in there and be in third down and make sure you're good on blitz pickups and then continue the drive on first and second down as well."
It comes at a time when the Broncos made a change in the offensive line, moving offensive tackle Paul Cornick into the starting lineup. In Cornick's first start this season, he had a rough start with a sack allowed and a false start, but Gase thought it was a good starting point for Cornick in the adjustment into the starting five.
"He did good. I mean there's room for improvement," Gase said. "We had the little slip-up there on the sack and then the false start the second play of the game which – [we] knew that was coming at some point. But he did a good job. He stayed calm. I think it's probably been about seven years since he's gone an actual 12-play drive and he was sucking some wind. But it was good, it was good experience for him and he did a good job."
Del Rio proud of pass rush, yet still looking for further improvement
With the addition of DeMarcus Ware and the return of Von Miller, the potential of the Broncos' pass rush had a high ceiling coming into this season. Considering that Miller and Ware are No. 1 and tied for second, respectively, in sacks this year, and that the team is tied for third overall, it seems safe to say that their ability to get to the quarterback is among the best. And with 16 sacks in the past four games, the Broncos' rush looks like it's getting even better.
"The way I look at it, I see a lot of things that I'm proud of and I see a lot of things that we have to do better and that's really how we're approaching it," Del Rio said. "We're acknowledging the things that have gone well and the hard work that has gone into those things going well and then we're recognizing the things where we must be better and pointing out those and correcting those. It's very workman-like. I think that's one of the things we have: a fairly mature group that has so far stayed the course and prepared very hard each week and that's what it takes."
The duo of Ware and Miller have notably terrorized quarterbacks to the tune of 15 total sacks, better than the sack totals of 14 NFL teams. The two have a competitive edge that pushes each other, and it was as visible as ever on Sunday when they combined for five sacks on Colin Kaepernick.
"That's special because there's a real competition there but it's respectful and it's healthy so it's good for the team," Del Rio said. "Obviously as a D-coordinator, having a couple special guys on the edge makes life good for me. But again it comes down to us as a team playing well together, the coverage that allows the rush to get there, how it goes hand in hand."
The pass rush is an exhaustive effort across the board. As Del Rio noted, the coverage plays a huge part by forcing a quarterback to take the time to go through his progression, giving the defense time to bring pressure. And the interior defensive linemen help the edge rushers, too, especially when they can take up multiple offensive linemen.
"When you have guys—especially like when Terrance comes in—like sometimes he'll just say, 'Hey, you have a two-way go,'" Ware said Monday. "And it depends on if I get a slide technique, meaning if the guard, the center and tackle slide to us, Terrance will sometimes crash down on the guard and he'll give you a two-way go on the tackle when the tackle's thinking, 'You know what, I'm going to have guard help,' but big Terrance will hold the guard for me. Or, if I've got Wolfe in there or Malik, I might be looking at those two guys and say, 'Hey, I'm going to push the pocket. Hey, you have a two-way go.' And they will go in there and push the pocket and make a big B gap for me and still give me a two-way go.
"So it's sort of having really unselfish guys in the middle that can get good pocket presence," he added. "They're not making the plays that they want to make, but their presence is felt from their teammates and what they bring to the game. You can see that, like this week, we keep that pocket tight. When you keep that pocket tight, you can keep those quarterbacks corralled."