Broncos’ improved run defense key to Denver’s turnaround

Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller celebrates as he leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

ENGLEWOOD | Scoot over, “No Fly Zone.” Make room for “Ground Control.”

The Broncos are allowing a league-low 50 yards rushing through the first month of the season, helping them hit their bye week at 3-1, a game behind the lone unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.

The Broncos have shut down Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch.

Those four workhorses loomed large on their schedule as the Broncos mixed changes in philosophy and personnel to seal the leaks in their run defense that doomed them in 2016. Collectively, that group rushed for nearly 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns a year ago even with Lynch on hiatus. Against Denver, they managed a measly 95 yards and no TDs on 49 carries.

That’s 1.9 yards a pop.

“Everyone in the front seven has been playing great,” noted nose tackle Domata Peko, the gem of general manager John Elway’s free agent class and a major — but not the only — reason for Denver’s turnaround.

“I feel like I found my second wind here in Denver,” said Peko, who spent his first 11 NFL seasons in Cincinnati.

He’s sure made a great first impression.

“He’s on fire every day,” coach Vance Joseph said. “That is fun to see from a guy in his 12th year. He hasn’t missed a start in seven years. He never complains. He’s here every day and in a good mood.”

Nobody is really salty in Denver, although the Broncos know they’re going to have to take this show on the road soon. After hosting the Giants next week, the Broncos, whose lone loss came at Buffalo in Week 3, play seven of their final 11 games away from home.

As they demonstrated in 2015, however, defense travels.

Denver’s top-ranked defense carried Peyton Manning across the finish line two years ago, sending the five-time MVP out as a champion.

The inability to stop the run last year — the Broncos were 28th in the league, allowing 130 yards a game — was a major reason they missed the playoffs and a chance to defend that title. So, Elway drafted DeMarcus Walker and signed free agents Peko, Zach Kerr, Shelby Harris and Kasim Edebali, then claimed Ahtyba Rubin off waivers from Seattle.

Joseph promoted secondary coach Joe Woods, a Wade Phillips protege, to defensive coordinator and they began blending concepts from Joseph’s 4-3 background and Woods’ 3-4 roots.

Joseph also put his team in full pads a lot more than his predecessor did a year before, when the Broncos were coming their Super Bowl triumph.

“I think stopping the run and running the football better” is where that’s paid off, Joseph said. “That was our goal in training camp. … If you don’t do it in pads, you won’t get good at it.”

Peko replaced Sylvester Williams as the fulcrum of Denver’s run defense and his teammates marvel at how he never gets his hips turned and is absolutely eating up double teams.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit,” linebacker Von Miller said. “We have the No. 1 run defense and that’s mainly because of how beastly Peko is.”

Inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis are playing closer to the line of scrimmage on early downs, attacking the running lanes instead of inching back in the read-and-react style they played under Phillips.

“I love it,” Davis said. “It’s kind of ‘See ball, get ball.’ We’re stopping the run like we never have before and I think that’s going to just elevate our defense to a whole other level.”

Opponents must deal with Miller and star cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. again, something they shied away from down the stretch last year when they could just hand off the ball.

“We’re just earning those passing downs, earning those pass rushes for the outside ‘backers, letting Aqib and Chris and those guys do what they do best,” Marshall said.

Guards now have to account for Marshall and Davis, and that, in turn, means defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis aren’t getting double-teamed nearly as much. Then, Miller and fellow outside linebacker Shaq Barrett are pinching the edges and keeping the backs from bouncing outside.

The key to it all is having their top-notch cornerbacks cover receivers one on one, which Harris figures will lead to more big plays by the “No Fly Zone.”

“We’re taking that run away. We’re going to get way more attempts,” Harris said. “Now, turnovers are going to start skyrocketing out there.”

An assistant defensive coach walked through the locker room this week and suggested the front seven get its own moniker, maybe “No Run Zone.”

Across the room, the defensive backs sneered. They insisted the run stuffers need more than a month’s worth of wonderful work to earn a nickname like theirs.

Marshall, for one, is fine with such a holding pattern for “Ground Control” or anything else that comes up.

“I’m good with that,” Marshall said. “It’s too early.”