Earlier this year, the Denver Broncos made history- but not in a good way.
On October 7th, the 2-2 Broncos traveled to the east coast to face the lowly New York Jets with a chance to put their season back on track. It, uh, didn’t work out. Allowing 99 rushing yards on 20 carries to Bilal Powell was bad enough- you never want to see your team allow 5 yards per rush. But on top of that the Broncos let Isaiah Crowell run free for a ridiculous 219 yards on just 15 rushes. Throw in Sam Darnold’s 3 rushes for 5 yards and you get a humiliating 323 yards given up on the ground.
A week later, the Broncos welcomed the Los Angeles Rams to Denver and promptly became just another notch on Todd Gurley’s belt. While the team thoroughly limited Jared Goff’s impact, Gurley rolled to 208 rushing yards on 28 carries (7.42 ypa). Add another 62 yards on 11 attempts by 4 other Rams and the Broncos coughed up a total of 270 rushing yards.
In those to games, the Broncos allowed 593 combined rushing yards, the highest total for two consecutive games since at least the NFL merger. With 77 total rushing attempts, that comes out to an insane 7.7 average yards allowed per rush. Throw in the previous 4 games, including a 142 yard outing by the Chiefs and the orange & blue crew had allowed 958 rushing yards on 174 attempts for a 5.56 yards per carry average. For perspective, after 9 or 10 games played each, 11 NFL teams still haven’t given up as many yards as the Broncos did in 5 games.
Narrative set: the Broncos’ run defense sucks. You’ve heard it every week, in every broadcast of a Broncos game. Their run D is a major weakness for their opponents to exploit.
Or is it?
You see, those two games represent a pretty significant departure from the run D’s performance throughout the rest of the season. The 142 yards given up to the Chiefs in Week 4 was sub-optimal, but not excessive. And that’s it for 100+ yard rushing games against the Broncos this season. Just 3 out of 9. So what’s happening 2⁄3 of the time?
Scores aren’t a big factor in it. With no real blowout losses outside of the Jets game, the Broncos haven’t been far enough back for other teams to go run heavy to kill the clock. By the same token, with only the one blowout win vs the Cardinals, the Broncos haven’t forced opponents to really abandon the run in favor of an all-out passing attack in an attempt to catch up.
To this point in the season, all games included, the Broncos are allowing 4.81 yards per rushing attempt and 131.6 rushing yards per game. Those are the 8th and 5th highest amounts in the league (impact of last night’s game not included).
But what happens if we give the Broncos the benefit of the doubt and remove those two historically horrible games from the equation? The team gave up a whopping 593 yards in those 2 contests. In their other 7 games, they’ve allowed just 591. Yeah, 2 yards less in 7 games than in 2 games. Yeah, I’m thinking this’ll be a significant difference.
When you remove the Jets and Rams games, the Broncos’ yards per attempt allowed plummets from 4.81 all the way down to 3.5, and their yards per game allowed shrinks to just 65.7. That would’ve been good for 3rd best in each category in the NFL back in 2017. Now we’re talking!
But last season doesn’t matter and an apples to oranges comparison is pointless. So I gave all 31 other teams the same benefit of the doubt: removing their worst 2 games of run defense and seeing how that impacted their average yardage allowed and ranking. Now how do the Broncos compare?
The top four teams had been the Texans and Bears at 3.60 yards per attempt, followed closely by the Cowboys at 3.61 and the Vikings at 3.62. After the 2 mulligans, Chicago holds 1st place alone with 3.20 yards/attempt. Dallas bumps up to 2nd with a 3.35 mark, followed by Houston at 3.40. And Minnesota, oddly, actually increases to 3.68 yards per attempt and falls to 8th.
(The Vikings faced 67 combined rushing attempts in their two mulligan’d games, while allowing only 128 and 106 yards. So the total number of rushes they faced fell more sharply than their yardage totals and resulted in an increased YPA. If I had time, I’d go back and do the mulligans via YPA rather than total rushing yards allowed.)
As for the Broncos? The 1.31 yard drop in yards per attempt brings with it a violent swing in the rankings, from 25th in the NFL to 6th. And for yards per game, from 28th to 8th. And in their last 3 games Joe Woods’ guys have allowed a measly 3.0 yards per attempt.
So while the Broncos’ lows in run defense were ridiculously deep and dark, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the unit the Chargers will face this Sunday is among the worst the NFL has to offer. Quite the opposite, actually: With the issues that caused those two horrid games clearly fixed at this point, the Chargers are facing arguably a fringe top 5, certainly top 10 run defense.
The real Broncos run defense has stood up, and it’s significantly more like the team’s excellent 2017 run D than most fans would ever realize.
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