Broncos' run defense is heart of the matter

Terrance Knighton (94) and the run defense may dictate how often Peyton Manning has the ball. Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In many ways his signing was simply caught in the vapor trail of the other work the Denver Broncos did in the opening hours of free agency last March.

After the Broncos jumped into the checkbook pond to give guard Louis Vasquez the longest deal they handed out this past offseason, after they tipped the balance of power in the AFC at least a bit by signing wide receiver Wes Welker, the Broncos made a two-year deal to an under-the-radar guy who might be the most important piece of the Broncos' defensive puzzle in Super Bowl XLVIII. That would be one Terrance Knighton, a 335-pound (or so) space-eating interior defender who is going to have to figure prominently in the Broncos' plan to deal with the Seattle Seahawks' punishing run game.

The Seattle Seahawks finished second in the league during the regular season in rushing attempts per game (31.8) and were fourth in rushing at 136.8 yards per game. Most folks who have faced the Broncos believe the best defense against Denver quarterback Peyton Manning is to not let him have the ball. So the Broncos figure to get a heavy dose of running back Marshawn Lynch as well as quarterback Russell Wilson working out of an option look in the title game.

"We know people don't want to give Peyton the ball," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said. "We know that means they are going to come after us if they think they have a chance to make some yards. We always want to stop the run games because the more we get the ball back for Peyton and our offense, the better it will be."

The Broncos faced four teams during the regular season that finished in the league's top 10 in rushing. Denver was 4-1 in those games, including two wins over Kansas City (No. 10 in rushing). The Broncos also defeated Philadelphia (No. 1) and Washington (No. 5).

The Broncos lost to the New England Patriots (No. 9) during the regular season -- the Patriots rushed for 116 yards on a frigid November night -- but held New England to just 64 yards rushing in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. Overall, the Chargers recorded the most rushing yards against the Broncos this season -- 177 yards in a Dec. 12 San Diego win -- in the same game that Ryan Mathews became the only running back this season to top 100 yards against the Broncos with 127 yards on 29 carries.

"But our guys up front take it kind of personally if you try to run," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. "They don't like it."

Well then, there will be plenty not to like against the Seahawks. Lynch is a yards-after-contact hammer, and defensive coaches in the league who have charted the Seahawks see an offense that has had quality production running through gaps across the front.

Seattle has run the most often this season over left tackle and center, averaging more than 4 yards a carry in both spots, 4.8 yards per carry over the center. But the Seahawks get more than 5 yards a carry over the right tackle and around the right end.

This puts Knighton and the strongside defensive end, usually Malik Jackson, in the crosshairs when the Broncos are in their base defense. For his part, Knighton will battle Pro Bowl center Max Unger for much of Super Sunday. Knighton played three seasons for Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville when Del Rio was the Jaguars' head coach. And when the Broncos made their roster plans this past offseason, Del Rio had hoped to add more bulk in the middle of the formation.

"I went through the whole process and chose the best fit for myself and my career," Knighton said. "I mean, a fresh start is always good. Most players want to stay with one team, but it worked out better for me being here, and I hope that I'm here for a long time.”

Knighton had one of his best all-around games Sunday with a sack and two tackles for loss among his four tackles against the Pats. On his sack, Knighton beat Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins with a quality first step and some savvy work with his hands. Woodyard has joked that he knew things would be different for the Broncos' defense when he couldn't get around Knighton while lined up behind the massive defensive tackle.

"He can do it all," defensive end Robert Ayers said. "He can rush. He's a big guy. He can stop the run. He brings a lot to the table -- he brings leadership and he commands double-teams on the run."

Teams gained just 2.84 yards per carry on runs over the center this season -- lowest in the league -- and had most of their success against the Broncos taking plays wide around the left or right end, averaging more than 6 yards a carry in both spots. The Broncos tweaked the lineup in the base defense coming down the stretch. They moved veteran Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot, and during the past four games -- two regular-season and two playoff games -- the Broncos have surrendered only 87, 64, 65 and 64 yards rushing.

Against teams that have the read-option element, as the Seahawks do with Wilson, the Broncos have played more of a 3-4 look on defense, using three down linemen to go with Shaun Phillips and Ayers standing up at the outside linebacker spots. The Broncos used it for 20 snaps earlier in the season against Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin Jr.

Denver figures to show that once again against the Seahawks.

"I think it's a chip," Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "I think as long as we step up to the challenge and accept that stuff, a lot of people are going to talk. But our key is just to play our game, stay within our scheme, and go out here and win games. Play 60 minutes. Like I said, a lot of people are talking, but you've got to come out here and you've got to perform. That's what it's about. ... A lot of people said [New England] could run the ball, all this and that. But you've got to be well-rounded. You've got to be a pro, handle that stuff as a challenge, take it upon yourself to go out there and perform and show them what's up."