It’s probably time to hit the panic button if you’ve grown concerned about the Denver Broncos’ struggles stopping the run.
After the Raiders romped for 218 yards and three Latavius Murray touchdowns on the ground, the Broncos are giving up the fourth-most rushing yards per game (128.6).
The Broncos have surrendered 120 or more rushing yards in six of nine games so far. Last season, when Denver finished third-best in rushing yards allowed, that happened twice over the course of the entire regular season and playoffs.
So what happened? What’s the reason for such a significant drop off? Two things, mostly.
1. The Broncos lost some key run stoppers in free agency.
Significant roster turnover is almost inevitable for teams that win championships, and the Broncos are no exception.
Defensive end Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan were the two departures that hurt the most. Jackson, who played 75 percent of the Broncos’ defensive snaps last season, left for $42 million in guaranteed money with the Jaguars. Trevathan signed with the Bears for $12 million in guaranteed dough.
Also, less notably: Reserve defensive end Antonio Smith, who played about a third of Denver’s snaps, signed with Houston.
Those losses forced Denver to plug those holes through the draft (choosing defensive lineman Adam Gotsis in the second round), in free agency (signing Jared Crick from Houston and Billy Winn from Indianapolis ) and by promoting reserves from last year’s team (inside linebacker Todd Davis) into more prominent roles.
The result is a front seven that’s getting pushed around much more.
“In the second half, we only ran two (running) plays,” Raiders offensive lineman Donald Penn told NFL.com following Sunday’s game. “We ran the same running play 10 times in a row. We kept wearing them down with double teams. They knew it was coming. It didn’t matter. That’s when you take somebody’s will.”
2. Injuries have also played a factor in the deterioration of the Broncos’ run-stopping game.
When Jackson left, do you remember which Bronco was supposed to take over his starting role at defensive end? That would be eight-year veteran Vance Walker.
Walker, who played 42 percent of the Broncos’ defensive snaps last season, went down with a torn ACL on Aug. 15. That thrust Crick into a starting role. He’s been OK but certainly nothing special.
When you couple Walker’s injury with the departures in free agency, what you have is again a defensive line that’s getting bullied. Football Outsiders keeps tabs on a statistic called stuffs, which occur when a running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. In 2015, the Broncos stuffed opposing backs 24 percent of the time, a mark that ranked fifth in the NFL. This year? Just 13 percent of the time, which ranks second-to-last.
The forecast for the near future doesn’t look great, either. Budding star defensive end Derek Wolfe suffered a hairline fracture in his elbow Sunday, and the team expects him out two to four weeks. That means we could be looking at a starting defensive end tandem of Billy Winn and Jared Crick.
The Broncos will face the Saints, who are a middle-of-the pack rushing team (108.1 yards per game, 16th overall), Sunday. They’ll then get a bye week. Hopefully Wolfe can be back for the Nov. 27 game against the Chiefs.
His return might help a front seven that got pushed around by the Raiders. Still, it might not be enough. It will still be Crick — not Jackson — starting at the other defensive end spot. Trevathan, too, won’t be there.
The Broncos are still an excellent defense. But unlike like last year, they have flaws, which were held under the microscope Sunday.
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