ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As the Denver Broncos' running game has struggled to fight its way out of neutral thus far, two things have happened.
One, with little to worry about from that run game, opposing defenses have been far more aggressive in how they rush quarterback Peyton Manning, as they don't fear his deep ball.
And two, they are having success hitting Manning.
"If you run the ball well, you usually protect your quarterback better," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said following Monday’s practice. “We’ve got seven sacks right now in two weeks, we can’t ask him to hold up that way throughout the whole season."
Manning has been sacked seven times this season. Beyond the fact the 39-year-old is in his 18th NFL season and has had four neck surgeries, this is the first time in his career he has been sacked seven times in the first two games of a season.
Manning was sacked five times over the in the first two games of 2012, eight times in the first three games and 10 times by Game 4. The Broncos had a more wide-open attack then.
The Broncos were 2-2 after those first four games that season before eventually settling in on offense. Manning was sacked 12 times over the last 12 games of the regular season, going unsacked in seven games, as the Broncos finished 13-3.
For another turnaround to occur, the Broncos have to find a way to slow down blitz-happy defenses. Kubiak believes the Broncos can make defenses pay for their aggressiveness with a big play or two as well as a more reliable run game.
“Biggest things offensively, to me, is protecting the quarterback and finding a way to make big plays in this league," Kubiak said. “The thing that enables you to do those two things is running the football, and we’re not running the football."
Defenses have sent an extra rusher at Manning on 43.5 percent of the team’s dropbacks in the first two games, including penalty snaps. He is 15-of-33 passing (45 percent) for 116 yards with both of his interceptions -- both returned for touchdowns -- coming against the blitz.
By comparison, Manning was blitzed on 26 percent of his pass attempts in his record-setting season of 2013 and threw 13 of his 55 touchdown passes that season when he faced the extra rushers.
The Broncos have had 19 rushing attempts of no gain or negative yardage, and defenses have been more emboldened in dialing up pressure against Manning. Not only can they affect his throws, but they can get him to the ground as well.
“It’s on us to get the run game going," running back C.J. Anderson said. “We’ve seen the good things in there, and we’ve seen the things that need the work."
The Broncos elected to have an extreme makeover on the offensive line, with four new starters. That, combined with a new scheme, has resulted in defensive coordinators being more aggressive. The prevailing wisdom now is to go after Manning, crowd the short and intermediate routes, and limit the damage from the Broncos' run game.
“They’ve been very aggressive with us the first two weeks, whether it’s with him or anything," Kubiak said. “They’ve been very aggressive with us up front, whether it’s trying to create some confusion ... as coaches it’s something you’ve got to adjust to."
With some extra days of preparation due to playing last Thursday, the Broncos have spent some time trying to find those adjustments.
“Too many line of scrimmage plays where the line of scrimmage is ugly, nothing going on," Kubiak said of the team’s offense. “We’ve studied the heck out of it through the weekend. Obviously we’ve got to do some things to make it better. You’ve got to get your guys space, but sometimes they’ve got to create their own space ... If you’re going to get played in a seven-man front in one back or an eight-man front in two back, you’ve still got to find a way to make plays."