DENVER -- They muted Melvin Gordon, erased Ezekiel Elliott and snuffed Shady, a.k.a. LeSean McCoy. So when the Denver Broncos suited up Sunday for a battle with the Oakland Raiders and their punishing, recently unretired running back, they were fairly confident they could blot out Beast Mode, too.
Nine carries for 12 yards later, Marshawn Lynch had been made painfully aware of a new reality in the Rockies: The Broncos, who last year seemed to be defending opposing runners with red capes and shouts of "Toro!" have called B.S. on that state of affairs. Four games into the 2017 season, it's clear that Denver is giving no ground -- and that's a major reason it looks poised to make some serious noise in the AFC.
In a battle of AFC West rivals coming off disappointing defeats, the Broncos (3-1) smothered the Raiders' offense in a 16-10 victory at Sports Authority Field, sending 76,909 fans home happy after safety Justin Simmons made a game-clinching interception at the Denver 8-yard-line with 1:46 remaining. And while the newest member of the No Fly Zone might have finished things, it was the No Room To Run crew which once again set the tone against suddenly struggling Oakland (2-2).
"We're gonna shut down everybody we play, I promise you," said inside linebacker Brandon Marshall, who had six tackles on Sunday. "We just have a different tenacity about us this year, a different mindset. A lot of guys came back stronger and more focused. We're just more aggressive, more confident."
Marshall and his fellow defenders' collective self esteem surely got a massive boost on Sunday, after Denver limited the Raiders to 24 rushing yards on 15 carries. It was the stylistic opposite of the two teams' first meeting last season: In an early-November Sunday night game at Oakland, the Broncos allowed 218 yards on the ground in a 30-20 defeat.
Coming off a Super Bowl 50 victory keyed by its dominant defense, Denver sputtered to a 9-7 record in 2016, missing the playoffs. The Broncos finished the season with the NFL's fourth-ranked defense -- first against the pass and 28th against the run.
"We talked about it all offseason," Marshall said. "We could've been the No. 1 defense again last year, like in 2015, if we weren't 28th against the run -- and we probably could've made the playoffs, too. There were a couple of games, like the one against the Raiders, where we got annihilated, and that's probably the reason we didn't make the playoffs. We don't want to be the reason we don't make the playoffs this year."
A quarter of the way through 2017, the Broncos have the league's top-ranked defense. They're also No. 1 against the run, surrendering a mere 50.8 yards per game. After limiting Gordon to 54 yards on 18 carries in a season-opening victory over the Los Angeles Chargers, Denver absolutely suffocated reigning league rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott, allowing only nine yards on eight carries in a 42-17 thrashing of the Dallas Cowboys. McCoy (14 carries for 21 yards) was not a factor in the Broncos' 26-16 road defeat to the Buffalo Bills, who improved to 3-1 with a road upset of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
If the Cowboys are almost universally believed to possess the NFL's most potent offensive line, the Raiders are a consensus second -- at least, they were until very recently. Yet after a promising performance in his Silver and Black debut, a 26-16 victory over the Titans, Lynch has become increasingly less productive.
On Sunday, Lynch's longest gain was 4 yards, as the Raiders struggled to move the ball even before star quarterback Derek Carr was knocked out of the game on a third-quarter sack on which he took a knee to the kidney area, causing numbness in his legs.
It was the second consecutive game in which the Raiders' offensive line has been eviscerated by an opponent, as Washington had done the same in a 27-10 victory the previous Sunday night.
"I don't know, man," left tackle Donald Penn said as he walked off the field following the defeat to the Broncos. "I don't know what the f--- is going on with us right now."
The Broncos know they've got a good thing going: They've managed to hold Gordon, Elliott, McCoy and Lynch without a rushing touchdown and under 100 yards -- combined. That's not a misprint: Those four decorated backs have collectively gained 95 yards on 50 carries. Respect.
On Sunday, the Denver run defense's signature play came with nine minutes remaining in the second quarter when Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, with his team trailing 10-0, decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Denver 31 -- and Lynch was stuffed for no gain, with safety Will Parks leading the charge. (That wasn't Oakland's most inglorious fourth-down moment, however; that distinction belonged to the fake-punt call late in the third quarter on fourth-and-11 from the Raiders' 33, with punter Marquette King getting pummeled at the 30 and then throwing the ball in frustration at the Broncos' Andy Janovich, incurring a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Good times.)
"It's tremendous when you have a front seven like ours that can stop the run and make them one-dimensional," said Simmons, who took over the starting job held by T.J. Ward after the three-time Pro Bowler was released shortly before the start of the season. "It makes our job so much easier."
In this case, the term front seven is a bit of an understatement. Rookie coach Vance Joseph and first-year defensive coordinator Joe Woods have proven to be even more aggressive than Woods' predecessor, Wade Phillips, when it comes to stacking the box with safeties. With a pair of Pro Bowl corners in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris and a third standout cover man in Bradley Roby, Woods has the luxury of daring teams to throw, and he hasn't been shy about doing so.
"We just load the box and play, man," Harris said after the game. "Joe's putting all the onus on me, Aqib and Roby, and he's willing to take a risk with us outside. We're trying to make them throw. We aren't gonna let a running back beat us. If someone's gonna beat us, they've gotta let it fly."
And when the Broncosknow the other team has to throw? Well, that means All-Pro linebacker Von Miller coming off the edge, and big-play potential from Talib, Harris and the other No Fly Zone members.
"That's the formula," Miller said. "That's how we want it. All we've gotta do is stop the run."
So far, so good -- with strong contributions from holdovers like standout defensive end Derek Wolfe and emerging second-year end Adam Gotsis, and from offseason signees like ex-Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko and former Colts end Zach Kerr.
"Stopping the run is definitely a mindset," Wolfe said. "I think we took it for granted last year. To stop the run against a good running team takes a ton of effort, and it takes all 11 guys buying in."
And yet, even after the Broncos' collective excellence against the run Sunday, it took a timely takeaway to subdue the Raiders for good. With backup EJ Manuel (11 for 17, 106 yards) providing a spark in Carr's absence -- this, also, is not a misprint -- Oakland cut the Denver lead to six points, then drove to the Broncos' 36 with two minutes remaining. After a false start and an incompletion, Manuel took a shot, lofting a high pass to struggling wideout Amari Cooper (two catches, nine yards) down the left sideline.
"We were in Cover Two, and I told Justin before the play, 'Watch the hole shot,' " Roby said. "When (Cooper) went past me, I thought, 'I hope J gets there in time.' It was such a huge play. Justin is a safety and went up against one of the top receivers in the league. I had a front row seat -- and he just took it from him."
That's business as usual for the No Fly Zone. And now that the Broncos can take away the run -- seemingly against anyone -- they're eyeballing higher ground, and looking very serious about seizing it.