As we lead up to Sunday’s game against the Bengals, some talking head somewhere is inevitably going to go hunting through box scores and other basic stats and then turn around and start spouting about the Broncos’ exploitable run defense.
That’ll be your signal to ignore that particular talking head- even if it’s one that’s usually competent like Tony Romo.
Here’s what you’ll hear:
- The Broncos have given up 1,354 rushing yards.
- Teams are gaining 4.7 yards per carry against the Broncos.
- The Broncos are allowing 123 rushing yards per game.
- The Broncos are among the 10 worst teams in the NFL for all of those stats.
And so on. But like many season-long views of basic stats, that’s more than a little misleading. As I’ve written about before, the two historically terrible run defense games the Broncos suffered vs the Jets and Rams earlier this season are pulling those season averages pretty sharply away from numbers that are at all accurate.
In my opinion, it’s far more germane to take a look at what the Broncos’ run defense has accomplished vs the primary running backs of each team it’s faced lately. It’s a rather star-studded group that features the following:
- David Johnson, Cardinals: 13th most rushing yards this season. 692 rushing yards, 62.9 per game.
- Kareem Hunt, Chiefs: 5th most. 824 rushing yards, 74.9 per game.
- Lamar Miller, Texans: 8th most. 773 rushing yards, 77.3 per game.
- Melvin Gordon, Chargers: 6th most. 802 rushing yards, 80.2 per game.
- James Conner, Steelers: 3rd most. 849 rushing yards, 77.2 per game.
That’s an impressive bunch of rushers. They’re just one part of a gauntlet of high-performing running backs the Broncos have faced or will face this season. Other notable backs on the Broncos schedule include: an earlier game vs Kareem Hunt and one against the Rams’ Todd Gurley (2nd in rushing yards), another game still to go vs Melvin Gordon, and upcoming games against Joe Mixon (14th), Matt Breida (11th), and Nick Chubb (15th). That’s 10 games this season vs top 15 RBs, and 7 of the 10 vs top 10 RBs.
Here’s how the last 5 guys to face our run defense fared:
- David Johnson: 14 carries for 39 yards, 2.79 YPC (1 yard below his average)
- Kareem Hunt: 16 carries for 50 yards, 3.13 YPC (1.5 yards below)
- Miller: 12 carries for 21 yards, 1.75 YPC (3.15 yards below)
- Melvin Gordon: 18 carries for 69 yards, 3.83 YPC (1.4 yards below)
- James Conner: 13 carries for 53 yards, 4.08 YPC (0.5 yards below)
What’s kind of incredible is that four of these games were decided by a touchdown or less, so it’s not like the Chiefs, Texans, Chargers, & Steelers had abandoned the run to try and make up ground. No, this was four top 10 running backs in a row who received less than 20 carries against the Broncos. Why would that happen? Because their coaches studied the Broncos’ tape and decided a run-heavy gameplan was futile.
So far this season, the Bengals’ Joe Mixon is averaging 4.1 yards per rush attempt. He’s accumulated 673 yards on 142 carries (just shy of 16 carries per game), and scored 5 touchdowns.
How he’ll fare Sunday against the Broncos isn’t entirely predictable considering the Bengals’ change at quarterback and how that may impact their playbook and gameplan. But it’s probably safe to say that any coach worth his salt would prefer to rely on his run game to ease the burden on his now-starting backup QB. If Marvin Lewis goes that route, Mixon is likely going to get eaten alive. Well, he’ll likely get eaten alive regardless.
My estimate is that Mixon will end the day Sunday with less than 20 carries, for about 2.5 yards per carry and he probably won’t be crossing the goal line.
The Broncos’ run defense has patched up it’s hole from the Jets & Rams games with 5 consecutive good performances since then. It’s become stout enough that teams are disinclined to commit to the run vs Denver. We can go into the game Sunday with the expectation that it’ll bottle up Joe Mixon too. And that’s pretty nice, because Vance Joseph & Joe Woods have the Broncos secondary playing pretty well right now. There are certainly yards to be gained against the Broncos’ secondary, as the Steelers showcased, but points are harder to come by. Look no further than the Broncos #3 rank in pass defense DVOA. Combine it with the run D and a soft schedule to end the season, & I like our chances not just Sunday but almost every week from here on out.