Spectacular run defense leads Denver to 3-1 start
AP Pro Football Writer
DENVER — Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy and now Marshawn Lynch.
This otherwise fearsome foursome — an enviable group of running backs that collectively rushed for nearly 4,000 yards and 38 touchdowns last season even with Lynch on a one-year hiatus — has been bruised, battered, bombarded and bulldozed by the Broncos in 2017 .
Denver limited Lynch to a dozen yards on nine carries Sunday in a 16-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders, who gained just 24 yards on the ground.
“Our run defense has been stout the entire year,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “So, I have been very proud of how those guys have played the run. With a back like that and an offensive line like that, that’s really special, 24 yards.”
Nose tackle Domata Peko, the gem of Denver’s offseason free-agent additions, marveled, “We’re going against guys who have been to Pro Bowls and we’re shutting them down. It’s been great. Big shout-out to the defensive line and the front seven. Shout out to our defense, because stopping the run is not just up front, it’s the whole team. This defense is playing great.”
Together, Gordon, Elliott, McCoy and Lynch managed a measly 96 yards on 49 carries for a 1.9-yard average and zero touchdowns against the Broncos (3-1).
“That’s really four special backs and really four special offensive lines,” Joseph said. “Our run defense has been really stout.”
Joseph noted the additions of Peko, Zack Kerr and Ahtyba Rubin along with a change in coaching philosophy have been the big difference this season.
Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, who led Denver’s 143-yard rushing effort with 95 yards on 20 carries, saw something special in training camp as Joseph and new coordinator Joe Woods installed a more aggressive run defense.
Anderson said Denver’s linebackers “are playing the run completely different this year.”
“I’m not going to go into detail and give up how they’re playing the run, we’ll let you guys figure that out … but they play the run completely different this year and I think that’s what’s helping them,” Anderson said. “I noticed that maybe the first three or four days in training camp because of the way they were making us cut.”
OK, so here’s what Denver’s doing differently:
Peko replaced Sylvester Williams and is playing the same responsible, consistently good defense he did all those years in Cincinnati. He’s never getting his hips turned and he’s absolutely eating up double teams.
Inside linebackers Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall are playing closer to the line of scrimmage on early downs, attacking the ball instead of inching back in the read-and-react style they played under former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
This means the guards have to account for the linebackers and that, in turns, means defensive ends Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis are getting way fewer double teams than they used to.
Add outside linebackers Von Miller and Shaq Barrett pinching the edges and keeping the backs from bouncing outside.
Of course, they’re able to load the box because cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby can cover anyone 1-on-1.
The result is that since ever Gordon reeled off a 21-yard run on his first carry in the opener, the Broncos have allowed opponents’ lead backs a paltry 1.5 yards per carry.
Denver’s inability to stuff the run last season defanged their famed “No Fly Zone” secondary and premier pass rush and ushered in an end to their five-year playoff run.
It’s what’s guiding their turnaround this season.
“I think the energy and culture is different” this year, Miller suggested.
The Broncos have manhandled two of the best offensive lines in wins over the Raiders (2-2) and Cowboys in a three-week span.
“We just have the mindset that we don’t care if they’re the best,” Barrett said. “We want to be the best defense, and in order for us to be the best defense, we have to take out all the top dogs on offense. We have those guys on our schedule, so we can prove against the top offensive lines that we are great.”
Panthers 33, Patriots 30
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Graham Gano hit a 48-yard field goal as time expired, and the Carolina Panthers stunned the New England Patriots 33-30 on Sunday.
It was the second home loss this season for the usually unbeatable Patriots at Gillette Stadium. The defeat marked just the second time since 2012 that Tom Brady has lost two home starts within a season.
Cam Newton threw for three touchdowns and ran for another. Jonathan Stewart rushed 14 times for 68 yards to pass DeAngelo Williams and become the franchise’s all-time leading rusher.
CARDINALS 18, 49ERS 12, OT
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Carson Palmer threw 19 yards to Larry Fitzgerald with 32 seconds left in overtime for the game’s only touchdown. The scoring had been limited to nine field goals on an ugly afternoon in the desert before Palmer directed a seven-play, 75-yard drive with 1:52 to play.
Fitzgerald, who had three catches for 13 yards before the winning grab, rose to catch the ball under tight coverage by Rashard Robinson.
Robbie Gould kicked his fifth field goal, a 23-yarder with 2:24 left in overtime to put the 49ers ahead 15-12.
EAGLES 26, CHARGERS 24
CARSON, Calif. (AP) — Carson Wentz passed for 242 yards, LeGarrette Blount rushed for 136 and the Eagles extended their promising start to the season.
Rookie Jake Elliott kicked four field goals for the Eagles (3-1), who had thousands of roaring fans in the Chargers’ temporary stadium while they hung on to win on the road for the second time in 10 tries.
Playing without several injured defensive regulars, the Eagles matched last year’s 3-1 start even though they blew most of an early 13-point lead. Rookie Austin Ekeler rushed for a score and Hunter Henry made a one-handed TD catch during the Chargers’ fourth-quarter surge.
BUCCANEERS 25, GIANTS 23
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Jameis Winston threw for 332 and three touchdowns without an interception, and Nick Folk kicked a 34-yard field goal as time expired.
Folk redeemed himself after missing two field goals and an extra point earlier in the day, booting the winner after Winston answered Eli Manning’s second TD pass of the day with an impressive drive that began at his 25.
The Giants (0-4) lost on a last-second field goal for the second straight week. They took a 23-22 lead on Rhett Ellison’s 2-yard TD reception with 3:16 remaining. Manning threw to Odell Beckham Jr., in the rear of the end zone for a 2-point conversion that was disallowed because the receiver had stepped out of bounds before making the catch.
RAMS 35, COWBOYS 30
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Todd Gurley scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 53-yard catch-and-run, and Greg Zuerlein kicked a career-high seven field goals.
Gurley finished with 215 total yards — 121 rushing and 94 receiving — as the Rams overcame two first-half touchdowns from Ezekiel Elliott the day before a federal appeals court hearing related to the star Dallas running back’s blocked six-game suspension over a domestic incident in Ohio.
The Rams (3-1) rallied from 11 points down late in the first half and matched their start from a year ago, when they went 1-11 the rest of the way as No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff was sitting and later lost the first seven starts of his career.
BILLS 23, FALCONS 17
ATLANTA (AP) — Stephen Hauschka kicked a tiebreaking, 56-yard field goal with less than five minutes remaining and the Buffalo Bills made a last-minute defensive stand.
The Falcons lost star wide receiver Julio Jones to a hip injury and also saw fellow WR Mohamed Sanu (hamstring) leave the game.
Hauschka padded the lead with a 55-yarder with about three minutes remaining.
STEELERS 26, RAVENS 9
BALTIMORE (AP) — Le’Veon Bell rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns to seize first place in the AFC North.
Though held to a touchdown over the final 30 minutes, Pittsburgh (3-1) mounted enough of an attack before halftime to earn its first win in Baltimore since 2012. Ben Roethlisberger went 18 for 30 for 216 yards and a touchdown. Bell did more than his share, carrying the ball 35 times to help the Steelers amass 381 yards on offense.
TEXANS 57, TITANS 14
HOUSTON (AP) — Rookie Deshaun Watson threw for four touchdowns and ran for another as the Texans scored the most points in franchise history.
Watson, the 12th pick in this year’s draft, became the first rookie to throw four touchdowns and run for another one since Fran Tarkenton in 1961, and tied an NFL record for most TDs by a rookie quarterback.
LIONS 14, VIKINGS 7
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Anthony Zettel led a ferocious performance by Detroit’s defense with two sacks, four hurries and a fumble recovery, as the Lions forced three turnovers while holding Minnesota scoreless in the second half.
The Lions turned two fumbles lost by the Vikings in the third quarter into 11 points, taking the lead on Ameer Abdullah’s 1-yard touchdown run five plays after rookie Dalvin Cook fumbled at the Minnesota 29.
SAINTS 20, DOLPHINS 0
LONDON (AP) — Drew Brees threw for 268 yards and two touchdowns and the Saints scored all but three of their points in the second half.
Michael Thomas had a touchdown reception in the third quarter, Alvin Kamara added one in the fourth and Will Lutz made two of his three field-goal attempts for New Orleans (2-2), which arrived for the game on Monday and won the lowest-scoring game ever held in London.
JETS 23, JAGUARS 20, OT
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Chandler Catanzaro kicked a 41-yard field goal with 28 seconds left in overtime, lifting the Jets to a wacky win.
After Catanzaro split the uprights, he and his teammates celebrated wildly in the middle of the field — but then had to wait because there was a penalty flag on the field. The officials ruled there actually was no penalty on the play, giving the Jets the victory.
Bilal Powell rushed for a career-high 163 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown, and rookie Elijah McGuire had a 69-yard score and finished with 93 yards rushing as the Jets (2-2) ran all over the Jaguars (2-2).
BENGALS 31, BROWNS 7
CLEVELAND (AP) — Andy Dalton threw three of his four touchdown passes in the first half and Cincinnati’s offense found the perfect opponent to work out some early season struggles.
Dalton only missed on one of 18 throws in the first half as the Bengals (1-3) built a 21-0 lead.
He connected with A.J. Green, Tyler Croft and Giovani Bernard while dissecting the young Browns (0-4), who were again plagued by mistakes and were down three defensive starters.