Nobody can quite figure out who should be favored in Super Bowl XLVIII and a large part of that has to do with the way the Denver Broncos are playing defense heading into the championship bout. In particular, all eyes are on how strong Denver’s run defense has become over the season and whether or not they can withstand the physical play of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
Terrance Knighton’s emergence over the final six weeks has breathed a new, relentless life into Denver’s front seven after a season filled with injuries (see: Kevin Vickerson, Von Miller, Derek Wolfe) and changes to the team’s depth chart (see: Paris Lenon in for Wesley Woodyard)
Knighton, the leader of this unit, has risen from questionable off-season signing who was benched last season in Jacksonville (2-14) to possibly the most important player in the entire Super Bowl. Without him, who knows where Denver’s run defense would be.
Since the Dec. 12 loss at home to San Diego, the Broncos run have allowed the following over a four game stretch:
- 26 carries, 87 yards, no touchdowns at Houston
- 20 carries, 64 yards, no touchdowns at Oakland
- 18 carries, 65 yards, no touchdowns against San Diego (Divisional Playoffs)
- 16 carries, 64 yards, one touchdown against New England (AFC Championship)
Compiled those numbers equal 80 carries for 280 yards (3.5 per carry) and one measly rush TD from Tom Brady on a play where defensive tackle Mitch Unrein was playing middle linebacker.
While part of this trend has to do with opponents abandoning the run to chase Peyton Manning and the high-scoring Bronco offense — something teams have been forced to do all season, the real reason why the number of carries and yards have gone down exponentially over each of the last four games is actually quite simple: Denver isn’t allowing its opponent to gain anything on the ground and they have no choice but to air it out against the team’s also-wounded secondary.
Circumstances may have affected strategy, but what should be talked about more is how much Denver’s front seven has dictated circumstances – a sign of any true championship defense.
In the game of football, you can’t win the ultimate prize if you don’t exert your will onto your opponent and make them play your game.
We all know that Denver’s offense does this quite well — and in case we ever forget, the history books will serve as our collective reminder. However, what’s most impressive about this team as it enters Super Bowl week is the fact it’s suddenly found a defensive identity to build around and grow confident in.
The scale will undoubtedly tip in favor of Seattle when it comes to overall defense, but that doesn’t mean the Broncos defense won’t be the difference maker in the game.
If Lynch is held to under 80 yards and Seattle is forced to dial back it’s run-first offense because there’s nothing available on the field, then Denver will be on its way to securing a third NFL title.
Remember, all week long leading up to the AFC Championship — and the Divisional Round the week before — the talk was about how New England wanted to run the ball, control the clock and break Denver’s spirit physically and then mentally.
Knighton & Company didn’t let that happen in the first half and by the third quarter, the Pats were playing catch-up — the run game completely abandoned besides a few nicely-designed draws to Shane Veeren.
Credit Jack Del Rio and the Broncos’ defensive coaching staff for coming up with a strategy that has worked down the stretch and forced opponents into submission.
More importantly, credit to the staff for sticking by players like Knighton, Lenon, Danny Trevethan, Robert Ayers, Malik Jackson and rookie Sylvester Williams.
Without their contributions, the Super Bowl expectations the Broncos had would have never came to fruition.
Now that they’ve arrived, it’s time to see if the Broncos run defense can withstand the pressure and come out as world champions.