ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – For all of the reasons the Denver Broncos have had to break out the worry beads over their defense this season, the one thing they could usually lean on in some troubling times was their run defense.
With opposing offenses routinely forced into hurry-up-and-chase mode against the Broncos' jet stream offense and the Broncos' ability to stop most of the runs they saw, it was all something that provided the jumping-off point to fix the rest.
And then the San Diego Chargers showed up in Denver last Thursday night and shoved the Broncos' defense around enough for 177 yards rushing, including 127 yards from Ryan Mathews. With that, Mathews became the first running back this season to top 100 yards rushing against the Broncos.
“[The game had] a couple of examples of when you don’t fit it right, don’t tackle well, things like that,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “When you understand where you belong and you get there with a little bit of an attitude, you tackle and you do it together, typically you play pretty good defense.’’
“It’s unfortunate that we had to have a loss to get that sense of urgency, but I think the sense of urgency is getting back -- we know what we can do,’’ Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “We’ve been preaching all year what type of team that we have and what we‘re capable of. It’s about that time for us to start putting it out there on the field.’’
San Diego’s 44 carries were a season high for an opposing offense against the Broncos this season. And of the three games the Broncos' defense has faced at least 35 rushing attempts, two have been against San Diego and coach Mike McCoy, the Broncos' former offensive coordinator. Has McCoy given Denver's potential AFC playoff opponents a blueprint on how to bully the Broncos?
And there is the matter of trying to fix the run fits and tackling when there is little tackling in practice during the season, especially 14 games into a season.
Still, Broncos coach John Fox will routinely put the team in pads for Wednesday’s practice and while no team would tackle to the ground to this point, defenders still square up and make full contact. Last week, however, because of a quick turnaround before a Thursday night game, the Broncos took a more measured approach to practice as the team was simply trying to recover with four days in between games.
This week the Broncos put the gear back on and also turned back the clock a bit in drills, going back to basics.
“One thing Coach Fox does, we’re going at it,’’ Del Rio said. “[Wednesday] was a pretty physical practice, back to the fundamentals, how we do things, and I think that’s refreshing, that’s good for our guys. Not everybody feels that way in December, but it was good work.’’
Beyond last Thursday's effort, however, Del Rio said he believes the Broncos' run defense has been a strength for much of the season, even though the point totals – they’ve allowed 26.6 points per game – continue to be an enormous red flag for a team that hopes for so much when the postseason begins.
Perhaps why the Broncos aren't standing pat with their personnel. With the Chargers able to run against both the Broncos’ base defense, as well as some of the specialty packages, Denver decided to add defensive line depth. Earlier in the week, the Broncos released one of their own former draft picks and former starters – center J.D. Walton – to add defensive end Jeremy Mincey.
Mincey played for Del Rio in Jacksonville. It comes after the Broncos have already moved linebacker Wesley Woodyard out of the base defense much of the time over the past two games and instead played Paris Lenon at middle linebacker in early-down situations.
“There’s just certain things you’ve got to do to be good on defense and part of it is stopping people from running the ball right at you like that,’’ Del Rio said. “We’ve been good for the most part. In the two years I’ve been here, we’ve been pretty solid in that, and I don’t expect that to change.’’
If the Texans on Sunday attempt the same keep-away strategy the Chargers did, Houston will try it with rookie Dennis Johnson at running back with starter Ben Tate having moved to injured reserve earlier this week. Johnson, at 5-foot-7, 193 pounds, was cut in August after fumbling three times in preseason and was on the Cleveland Browns practice squad when the Texans brought him back.
He had 74 yards on 13 carries in Houston’s Nov. 24 loss to Jacksonville, but has carried the ball just 10 times in the past three games combined.
“I feel like, it’s not that we haven’t played great, it’s just been inconsistent,’’ Miller said. “Those great defenses are solid all the way around. We just have to chain together 60 minutes being urgent, confident the whole game.’’
“We know there’s more we can do,’’ Woodyard said. “It’s about everybody just doing their job, what they’re supposed to do. Just being in the right spot, getting off blocks and making some plays.’’