DENVER — The winless Giants were supposed to be easy prey. The offensive line entered the game with its fifth different personnel combination in six games. The Broncos had held Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon—four of the better running backs in the game—to less than 200 yards combined in four meetings. With receiving threat Odell Beckham out for the season, Giants running back Orleans Darkwa, who began the year third on the depth chart, would be in for a long day.
Instead he ran for 117 yards in a dominant 23-10 Giants win. In one of the big surprises of the young NFL season, the Broncos and a run defense that remains No. 1 even after Sunday’s letdown performance were exposed as something less than perfect by a team seeking its first win.
The victory will serve as a blueprint for the Chiefs and Eagles, playoff hopefuls who will host this Denver team in the final two weekends of October. How’d the Giants pull it off? It all starts with No. 58 in orange.
“In my eyes he’s the best pass rusher in the game,” says Giants running back Shane Vereen.
“That’s the only guy we were really worried about,” said guard D.J. Fluker.
The man to Fluker’s right, Justin Pugh, drew the biggest assignment of Week 6, sliding over to right tackle to block arguably the best edge defender in football, Von Miller. All week in practice, teammates including Jason Pierre-Paul wore a 58 jersey to help remind Pugh of what he was going up against—not that he needed any reminder. Pierre-Paul did his best impression of the Von Miller spin move, as did several of the Giants’ reserve defensive linemen. “I tried to simulate the Von look,” said Pierre-Paul. “The spin move... I’m not a good spinner. I’m not Von Miller, I’m Jason Pierre-Paul, but I did the best I could.”
Said Pugh: “Von’s spin move is like teleporting. He bends the corner better than anyone in the NFL. His bull rush is tremendous. He’s a great player. We all know what he can do.”
The goal, Pugh and others said, was to prevent Miller feeling free to pin his ears back and break out that spin move. That meant they needed to avoid third and long, and they needed to do so with the ground game. Said Fluker: “We said we’re gonna pound the rock. We do not want to get in no passing frenzy with those guys.”
Brett Jones would start at center for the second consecutive week with Weston Richburg out with a concussion. John Jerry and D.J. Fluker would play left and right guard, respectively. Before Sunday, this group or a rough semblance of it had managed to crack 100 yards rushing just once, in a Week 5 loss to a Chargers team ranked 32nd in yards allowed on the ground. Safe to say, these Broncos don’t much resemble that team.
Denver’s run defense is predicated on stout though not spectacular interior line play and a group of extremely aggressive defensive backs who are more often found diverting and disrupting plays in the backfield than even their linebacker counterparts. Darian Stewart, Justin Simmons and Will Parks, particularly, have a knack for sniffing out runs, shooting gaps and making sure tackles when they arrive. Rare in the NFL are safeties who will run up and gang tackle running backs at the line of scrimmage, delivering punishing blows just because they can. These are those guys. Trotting out three wide receivers with the intention of running the ball is futile, because when the Broncos are in nickel, it’s functionally a 4-4 with a pair of undersized outside linebackers who strike people and have the speed to recover in the event of a play-action pass.
Zone running schemes don’t do well against this club; they’re laterally quick and extremely aggressive on the backside with Shaquil Barrett and Von Miller mopping up a ton of ball-carriers from behind. That’s how the Raiders fell into a major rut—there was just no opportunity for interior offensive linemen to graduate to the second level with Derek Wolfe, Miller and Barrett holding their ground and pressing interior gaps and safeties wiggling past big men for stops behind the line of scrimmage. This was never more evident than on Oakland’s ill-fated fourth-and-1 attempt halfway through the second quarter in Week 4, when Wolfe stood up an offensive tackle and a tight end on his own, and Will Parks dove into a gap and chopped down Marshawn Lynch at the knees.
Try to run outside, off tackle, as Buffalo did numerous times in Week 3, and more often than not Miller or Barrett will hold their ground, inside linebackers Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis will string the play to the sideline.
To beat these men, you have to run at them. Check that. You have to run at everyone but Miller. One-cut running, right up the gut. And that just what the Giants did, with their shuffled and reshuffled offensive line. Of New York’s 32 rushing attempts, seven carries went for more than five yards, and all seven went away from Miller’s side of the field. The Giants discovered favorable matchups on the interior with Denver tackles Domato Peko and Adam Gotsis, Wolfe’s interior line counterparts. On the biggest run of the game, a 47-yard Darkwa scamper on a perfectly blocked trap, backup center Brett Jones stopped Peko dead in his tracks, and Fluker delivered the block of the game, bending Adam Gotsis backwards.
The Giants operated almost exclusively out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) when running the ball in this game, for two apparent reasons. Broncos linebackers had keyed on fullbacks against previous opponents with tremendous success, and Denver had very little vulnerability to play-action. Plus, Giants tight ends Rhett Ellison, Matt Lacosse and Jerell Adams stood a better chance of blocking Denver’s ball-hawking safeties than any receiver on the roster. This came to bear on a third-quarter run that went for 14 off the right end, with Ellison and Adams leading the way. The pair moved Barrett off the line of scrimmage, then Ellison headed to the next level and gave 200-pound Justin Simmons the business (the drive leads to a field goal).
Perhaps the most embarrassing run allowed by this Denver defense Sunday, and the most telling, happened in the fourth quarter after a failed Broncos attempt on fourth-and-goal. Up 20-3 with eight minutes left, the Giants were pinned at their own half-yard line, with eight defenders in the box. This was do-or-die time for the Broncos, and they gave up 16 yards. How? Simple. Brett Jones just moved Peko out of the way.
In the end, the lowly Giants had 4.6 yards per carry against the Broncos, better than Oakland (1.6), Buffalo (2.3) and Dallas (2.9). Even without Darkwa’s long run of 47, the Giants still bested those others, with 3.25 yards per carry, and they did it running through the center of a vaunted run defense, exposing its sweet, chewy center for the rest of the league to see.
Miller was able to try that vaunted spin move only once that Pugh could remember, in the second half of a game that had slipped away from the Broncos. Pugh rode out the stutter step and twist inside with aplomb: “Somehow I caught it,” Pugh said, “but you have to give credit to this whole offensive line. Everything came together.”
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