If Broncos' run defense passes each test, opposing offenses won't succeed

The addition of Domata Peko (94) has brought size and strength to the middle of the Broncos' D-line. Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' defense set, and then met, a goal when it held Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott to 8 yards rushing Sunday, the lowest single-game total in Elliott's still-youthful career.

The Broncos dominated the line of scrimmage and outplayed a Dallas offensive line that had three starters named first-team All-Pro last season. And the Broncos' reward for that is ... LeSean McCoy.

The Broncos will play their first road game of the season this Sunday, in Buffalo, and McCoy and Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor comprise the third different approach to the run game the Broncos will have faced in their first three games.

"That's it, we feel good about what we did against [Elliott], a good win, but a new week is a new week," Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib said. "And [McCoy] has been one of the best backs in the league. You know that going in."

In the season opener, the Broncos faced Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, a sort of complementary back in the Los Angeles offense used to keep the heat off quarterback Philip Rivers. Gordon opened big with a 21-yard run on his first carry, but from there the Broncos limited him to 33 yards on 17 carries.

On Sunday, it was the raw power of the Cowboys' rushing attack, with a physical front that helped the elusive Elliott top 1,600 yards rushing last season as a rookie.

And this week, it's the rushing-receiving threat of McCoy.

McCoy was the NFL's rushing champ in 2013 and has four seasons in which he's topped 1,000 yards rushing and had at least 48 receptions -- including 2016, when the Bills led the league in rushing. While McCoy is coming off a 9-yard game in the Bills' 9-3 loss to the Panthers, he is still tied for 13th in the league in rushing after two weeks (113 yards), and Taylor is 22nd (93 yards).

The Broncos' defense is adjusting to these varying styles as they set out to repair the league's 28th-ranked run defense from 2016. The most significant change was the addition of defensive tackle Domata Peko, the kind of presence in the middle the Broncos haven't had in recent seasons, even as the defense has been ranked among the league's top four in four of the past five years.

"And he's done a good job because he is a true nose guard," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. "He is a big man that can take up a lot of space inside. ... I was with him in Cincinnati, and we were more of a read defensive line. His size in Cincinnati didn't really make a difference. But here it does, because we're more of an attacking-style defensive line."

Overall, the Broncos held the Chargers to 64 yards rushing and then followed by holding the Cowboys to 40 yards on the ground.

"I think it was the attitude, too," Peko said. "To stop the run, it's an attitude. You have to go out there and draw a line in the sand and say ... nobody is going to push me around. That's the attitude that we have here."

The Broncos have three players in the secondary who played in the Pro Bowl last season -- cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Talib, and safety Darian Stewart -- and have finished as the league's No. 1 pass defense the past two seasons. They also have an annual defensive player of the year candidate in outside linebacker Von Miller.

And the Broncos know that if they can maintain their current level of play in run defense, it will force offenses to try their luck against that pass defense in down-and-distances that put the odds in Denver's favor. The early returns bear this out: In just two games, the Broncos have forced opposing offenses into third-and-5 or longer 16 times, including a third-and-10, a third-and-14 and a third-and-18.

"We loaded the box [against the Cowboys]," Harris said. "We put everyone in there that we could possibly put in there. Those guys did not give [Elliott] an inch. When we do that, that's what we expect from them. We don't expect them to give up an inch or a yard. They were great for us, and we didn't allow them to get third-and-threes or third-and-fours. That's huge."

"The guys are just better this year," linebacker Brandon Marshall said. "[Derek] Wolfe has always been Wolfe, but he's healthy. Adam Gotsis has turned it on. He was a rookie last year, but he turned it on. And Peko is an absolute beast. You can't move him. We're just going to keep getting better."