Denver Broncos And Running: A Slightly Different Look

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 13: Linebacker Von Miller #58 of the Denver Broncos tackles running back Thomas Jones #20 of the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half on November 13, 2011 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. Denver defeated Kansas City 17-10. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

     I seriously doubt that any Broncos fan who has watched the last four games -- the 18-15 Miracle in Miami, the 10-45 Devastation by Detroit, the 38-24 Beat Down of Oakland and the narrow 17-10 Killing of Kansas City -- can help but be excited by what he or she has been seeing. How can we not be excited and encouraged by what has happened: going 3-1 after a 1-4 start to find the Broncos a single game out of first place in their division. As one of my daughters said after the Miami win, "I wandered around saying 'We won! We won!' for about an hour."

     I found myself beginning to believe that perhaps, just perhaps, the offense has begun to find an identity and that we will simply see them improve as the rest of the season unfolds. Yet, in the back of my mind, a lingering concern refused to leave me alone. A concern that focused not on the offense as one might imagine, but rather on the defense. Not on the run defense as is most commonly cited as the most glaring weakness of the team, but rather on the pass defense. In this article, we will take a look at what the Broncos have done in defending the run through the first nine games. In a second article, we will look at how well Denver has defensed the pass.

Let's take a jump.

     I've had a nagging feeling through every game that something was not firing quite right on the defensive side of the ball. The Lions game gave that concern a focus: The scene of Andre Goodman and Brian Dawkins staring at each other as neither one bothered to cover Titus Young. A play that resulted in a 41-yard touchdown pass. The nearest Bronco defender on the play was out around the twelve yard line. This left me with the strong conviction that Denver's greatest area of need is not, as popular opinion would say, the run defense, but rather the passing defense. We'll take a look at how the defense has performed against both the run and the pass in these two articles to see if what I think I'm seeing, is in fact what I'm seeing.

     If we just look at some of the statistics kept by the NFL on their website, we can see how the defense has fared in the following table. Please keep in mind, that when reading the league rankings, the smaller the number, the better the defense has performed -- relative to the other thirty-one NFL teams.
NFL Average Broncos (NFL Rank)
Attempts/Game 26.1 29.1 (24th)
Yards/Game 107.0 117.6 (16th)
Yards/Attempt 4.3 4.0 (8th)
Touchdowns 6.9 5 (6th)
First Downs 54.5 53 (18th)
First Down Percentage 22.2 20.2 (10th)

     At first glance, this seems to paint a reasonably good picture of Denver's defense against the run -- in the top 10 in first down percentage, touchdowns and yards per attempt; in the top half of the league in yards and yards per game; in the top three-quarters of the league in attempts per game. Yet, I wasn't satisfied with this look.

Looking More Closely At the Situation

     I was concerned that the statistics listed on the NFL's website did not give a solid picture of how Denver has done when defending against the run. So, I went to the NFL Game Books (a summary of each both statistically and play-by-play; available as a free pdf download from the team pages on from Denver's first nine games. I tallied the results of each running play executed by the Broncos' opponents, and looked at each run from the following angles: (a)Down, (b)Direction, ©Tackles for a Loss, (d)No gain on the play, (e)Distance gained, (f)First Downs, (g)Touchdowns, and a break down of how each team fared against the Denver defense.

     Please remember, that these tallies are based on the information contained in the NFL's Game Books and may not be exactly aligned with the "official statistics" on the team webpage.

By Down
1st 2nd 3rd 4th
Attempts 144 85 26 1
Yards 611 382 90 -1
Yards/Attempt 4.2 4.5 3.5 -1.0
No Gains 12 11 4 0
Tackles for Loss 13 9 1 1
First Downs 14 20 10 0

     An average of around four yards per attempt is not particularly impressive. What I found interesting is that 56% of the rushing attempts the defense faced came on first down. I don't know if there's any significance to that, but it was interesting.

By Direction
L End L Tackle L Guard Middle R Guard R Tackle R End
Attempts 28 40 21 82 20 32 28
Yards 155 221 71 316 69 144 68
Yards/Attempt 5.5 5.5 3.4 3.9 3.5 4.5 2.4
No Gains 1 4 1 12 2 4 4
Tackles for Loss 4 5 0 6 2 2 5
First Downs 6 7 1 16 6 7 1

     It is interesting to note how opposing teams have had the greatest success when running to their left side (5.5 average on runs to both the left end and left tackle). They've had the least amount of success when trying to run to the outside on their right side. The area across from the offensive guards has been solid with just a 3.4 and 3.5 average. Runs up the middle are just under 4.0 yards per carry (3.9). This average is high due to eight plays that went for ten or more yards: five that were at ten yards, a twenty-one and a twenty-seven yard run, and a forty-seven yard run.

Tackles for Loss and No Gain Plays

     According to the Game Books, out of the 256 rushing plays attempted by opposing teams, twenty-four (9%) resulted in the runner being tackled for a loss. Another twenty-seven plays (10.5%) resulted in no gain for the opposing team. That is, 19.9% of all rushing plays resulted in no gain or a loss. Another way of looking at it is that nearly one out of every five runs resulted in no gain or a loss.

By Distance Gained
Yards Runs Yards Run
1 25 12 4
2 33 13 1
3 29 14 3
4 23 16 3
5 11 17 1
6 13 20 2
7 5 21 1
8 6 22 1
9 7 34 1
10 7 36 1
11 5 47 1

     This was an interesting tally. Twenty-three percent of all running plays which gained yardage resulted in a gain of one to two yards. If you add in the tackles for loss and the no gain plays, we find that forty-three percent of all running plays resulted in a gain of two or fewer yards. Sixty-seven percent of all running plays (including tackles for a loss and no gains) resulted in a gain of five yards or less. Only twelve percent of all running plays gave up ten or more yards. Only three percent of all runnning plays went for twenty or more yards.

     As you will see in the chart that of running results by team, of the thirty-one running plays that went for ten or more yards, fifteen (or 48%) came in just two games (The first Oakland game and the San Diego game). Of all the seven runs that went for twenty or more yards, forty-three percent came in the first Oakland game. Denver has given up no more than one big (20+ yards) running play in any of the other eight games. In fact, the Broncos did not give up 20+ run in four of those other eight games.

First Downs and Touchdowns

According to the information given in the Game Books, Denver surrendered forty-four first downs via the run and has given up five rushing touchdowns. on their team stats page recorded the Denver defense as giving up fifty-three first downs. I was unable to locate the nine missing first downs when reviewing the Game Books. So, we will go with the NFL's official stat line. As noted above, both the number of first downs and touchdowns surrendered via a run are below the league average.

By Team


Tkl for Loss 5 1 8 1 1 1 2 2 3
No Gain 5 5 0 3 5 7 2 1 0
1-2 yds 8 2 7 7 16 6 8 8 3
3-5 yds 10 6 5 8 8 10 7 6 11
6-9 yds 4 4 1 2 4 3 5 5 6
10-19 yds 4 2 1 1 7 2 2 3 2
20-29 yds 2 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 0
30-39 yds 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 1
40-49 yds 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
First Downs 9 2 1 3 10 5 4 4 6
Touchdowns 1 0 0 2 1 0 1 0 0


Some Final Thoughts

     There  were many fans, myself included, who went into the 2011 season with some serious concerns about how well the Broncos defense would be able to handle the run. I have been somewhat surprised by the results through the first nine games. To see the run defense at, or above, the league average in most categories is encouraging. While overall, it seems that the run defense has been solid -- they've only allowed two players to rush for over 100 yards (McFadden, first Oakland game and Matthews, San Diego game). The defense has given up over 100 yards rushing in six games and five of those games saw the opposing team rush for more than the league average (Oakland 1, 190; Green Bay, 111; San Diego, 206; Detroit 113; Kansas City, 134). These are encouraging things.

     Of continuing concern is the fact that the defense has given up at least one big run (20+ yards) in five of the nine games, and that they have given up one or more runs of ten or more yards in every game. It is of greater concern that teams are average 5.5 yards per run when running to their left side. Three of the seven runs that went for twenty or more yards occurred on runs to the left end and off left tackle. Two of the three runs that went for thirty or more yards occurred went to the left side of the offense. The Broncos defense needs to find a way to correct this vulnerability.

The next article will look at the pass defense in the same way as this one looked at the run defense.

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