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Recovering from Fournette: Denver D goes from league's third worst against the run to second best

Turnaround keyed by adding bigger bodied Alexander Johnson and Mike Purcell up the middle.
Credit: KUSA

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Leonard Fournette will never believe this but Denver has had the league’s second-best run defense since week 4.

Fournette ran for 190 of Jacksonville’s 229 yards in the second half alone in a walk-off, 26-24 victory against the Broncos in week 4 at Empower Field at Mile High.

That left the Broncos ranked No. 30 in run defense overall through week 4, allowing an average of 149.3 yards per game.

After that game, Broncos’ head coach Vic Fangio made three personnel adjustments. He inserted 328-pound Mike Purcell at nose tackle, which moved Shelby Harris from the middle to defensive end. He started 6-foot-3, 250-pound Alexander Johnson at middle inside linebacker, which moved Todd Davis to the weakside linebacker. And he dropped Kareem Jackson from nickel corner to safety so that instead of getting run away from the play by the receiver he covered, K-Jack could move into it.

Voila! In the six games since the lineup changes, Denver’s D has allowed just 68.0 rushing yards per game. Only the Saints have been a tick stingier against the run, allowing 67.5 yards since week 4.

“Everybody’s doing their job in the run game, tackling’s been way better,’’ said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. “Safety, Kareem can make more plays. But I would say ‘98’ and ‘45’ definitely have been the biggest difference. They just added more beef. They’re just bigger. They added more beef to the middle.’’

There’s the nothing like the physics of bigger bodies when it comes to stopping the run. Johnson, No. 45 in your program, has 24 pounds on the linebacker he replaced, Corey Nelson. Purcell, No. 98, is 41 pounds heavier than Adam Gotsis, a defensive end who was pushed to the inactive list.

That’s 65 more pounds straight up the gut compared to what the Denver D had been using to stop the run in the first four games.

This is how bad the Broncos were against the run in their 0-4 start:

Rush defense weeks 1-4

Rk Team …. Rush yds/g

28. Cardinals ….... 146.5

29. Washington … 147.5

30. Broncos ……, 149.3

31. Chiefs ………. 149.8  

32. Dolphins ….... 175.8

This is how good the Denver D has been while going 3-3 in its last six games:

Rush defense since Week 4

Rk Team …. Rush yds/g

  •  Saints …....… 67.5
  •  Broncos ...… 68.0
  •  Colts ……..… 73.0
  •  Jets ……..….. 75.0
  •  Rams ……..... 87.3

The Saints may have a better run defense statistically, but the Broncos may be better otherwise. New Orleans is 8-2 which means more trailing opponents. Playing from behind means more throws than runs in hopes of catching up.

The Broncos are 3-7 so opponents in the lead would tend to run the clock more than risk the clock-stopping incompletion.

And it’s not like the Denver D has feasted on a run  of pedestrian running backs. In order, Denver has stopped the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon and Austin Eckler (combined 15 carries for 38 yards), Titans’ Derrick Henry (15 for 28), Chiefs’ LeSean McCoy and Damien Williams (combined 21 carries for 71 yards), Colts’ Marlon Mack (19 for 76), Browns’ Nick Chubb (20 for 65) and the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook (11 for 26).

Those eight running backs combined for just 304 yards rushing on 101 carries, or 3.0 yards per carry in the Broncos past six games.

As Purcell plays about 40 percent of the defensive snaps, Denver’s run improvement could be more narrowly credited to the Alexander Johnson Factor.

“I would never want to say it’s me who made the defense,’’ Johnson said. “It’s a unit thing. Combination of unit thing, I was able to get in there and help the team, Mike was able to start starting, too, so it was a unit thing. Playing together.’’

An 81.3-yard per-game improvement in run defense begins with Johnson, Purcell and Jackson but they’re not the entire explanation.

“That was definitely a part of it,’’ Fangio said in an interview with 9News. “What percentage part, I don’t know. But it was definitely a part of it.’’

Other factors: Davis didn’t play in the first two games because of a calf injury, yet he now leads the team with 66 tackles – 20 percent more than runner-up Justin Simmons, who has played every snap at one safety position.

And within the seven-man box area, the players are more comfortable and assignment sound within Fangio’s new defensive scheme.

“We’ve added some things due to A.J.’s abilities and Purcell’s abilities, but nothing major,’’ Fangio said. “We were playing with a lot of the same calls in that (Jacksonville) game that we’re still playing. We’re just playing them better.”

And then there was Fournette. He didn’t just run through the Broncos, he embarrassed them.

“When you have a game like we had, it gets guys attention,’’ Fangio said. “They don’t want it to happen again.’’

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