News & Analysis

Week 2 Surprise Takeaway: The Broncos run defense

By Michael Renner
Sep 20, 2017

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DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 17: Domata Peko (94) of the Denver Broncos Todd Davis (51) and Adam Gotsis (99) tackle Ezekiel Elliott (21) of the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter on Sunday, September 17, 2017. The Denver Broncos hosted the Dallas Cowboys. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

In 2016, the Denver Broncos quietly owned one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. It got mostly swept under the rug because, well, it’s 2016 and a lights out pass defense equals few points against. With minimal personnel additions along the front-seven, many expected the status quo to be maintained heading into 2017. Sending that up against Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys offensive lined looked like a recipe for disaster.

But it wasn’t.

In fact, it was the complete opposite. Elliott had easily the worst game of his pro career, racking up more carries (9) than yards (8). It was the most impressive run defense display we’ve seen this season and it played a major role in the Broncos blowout win. Let’s take a look at exactly how the Broncos got it done.

Earlier this year I wrote about how the Cowboys run defense saw success through creating havoc in opponents’ backfields. Penetration can play tricks with the eyes of a running back causing him to either misread his blocking or come off the intended point of attack sooner than he wants to. The Broncos utilized the exact same tactics to blow up the Cowboys rushing attack. This was most evident on the third quarter run below.


Von Miller is lined up as the edge man on the line of scrimmage, a position that traditional has contain on the play. When he reads the stretch run his way though, his primary goal becomes getting penetration and the linebacker scrapes over the top to play contain. Miller forces Elliott to stop his feet in the backfield, one of the biggest no-no’s of outside zone runs, and the result is a tackle for loss. The Broncos got penetration on the edge every time the Cowboys ran outside zone.



The other way to shut down a running game like the Cowboys is to simply put more people in the box than the offense can account for. On all nine of Elliott’s carries, the Broncos had more defenders lined up within eight yards of the line of scrimmage than the Cowboys had run blockers. All the defense needs to do at that point is send the running back into the gap of the unaccounted-for defender and it’s a stop for the defense. That’s precisely what they did on the play below. As you can see at the snap, there are eight Broncos defenders and only seven Cowboys blockers.

The Cowboys run your typical zone read in an effort to account for the extra defender. Everyone fills their gap perfectly and Todd Davis gets the critical penetration once again to spill the running back right into the unblocked Shaquil Barrett.


Because of the boxes they were seeing, it’s difficult to blame the Cowboys too much for only handing the ball off 11 times in the game. When the defense has a man in the box you can’t account for, and the ones you can account for are winning the battle against your offensive line, there’s little incentive to pound the rock. It was a sound game plan for the Broncos who believed they could win the matchups on the outside in the passing game and ultimately helped them get a statement win.

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