DENVER — Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy.
This terrific trio of elite running backs combined to rush for 3,895 yards and 38 touchdowns last year. But each one has run into the Denver Broncos’ buzz saw this season.
Against an improved defensive front featuring Von Miller, Derek Wolfe, free agent Domata Peko and a blossoming Adam Gotsis, the three running backs combined for 84 yards on 40 carries for a 2.1-yard average and zero touchdowns.
After Gordon’s 21-yard scamper on the first carry of the season, the Broncos have allowed opponent’s lead running backs a mere 1.6 yards a carry.
“They’ve been playing tremendous defense, period,” said Oakland coach Jack Del Rio, whose Raiders (2-1) visit the Broncos (2-1) Sunday in a game pitting teams salty over stumbles on the road last week. “Peko’s added some strength to the middle. ... They’ve been very good there, and that limits the number of opportunities teams get.”
Gordon gained 33 yards on his final 17 carries against Denver; Elliott had the worst game of his life with 9 yards on eight carries and McCoy managed 21 yards on 14 carries.
Up next: Marshawn Lynch.
He leads the Raiders with a mere 139 yards and a touchdown on three dozen carries, but brings more than just numbers to his hometown team, namely a tone-setting physicality and personality.
“He’s been a great addition,” Del Rio said, noting he brings “passion and toughness” to a roster that prides itself on nastiness.
“Oh, you’ve just got to get him on the ground,” said Miller, laughing because that’s not so easy. “I remember one time when I tried to tackle him (when he was with) the Seattle Seahawks and I had him behind the line. It was like a yard. I think I had him by one leg and he just drug me for the next two and got the first down. Usually when you get a running back he’ll just fall, but he’s definitely ‘Beast Mode.’ They call him that for a reason.”
Lynch presents another big test for Denver’s defense, which is allowing a league-low 59 yards rushing and has yet to yield a touchdown run. That’s a turnaround from last season, when the Broncos were 28th in the league and allowed the Raiders to rush for 218 yards in Oakland.
Other subplots in Sunday’s showdown between the bitter AFC West rivals:
PROTECT THE CARR
Oakland’s offensive line has been one of the league’s best in recent years. But that unit lost tackle Menelik Watson to Denver this season and had its problems against Washington last week. Carr was sacked four times, the most he’s had in a single game since 2015. Oakland will need to do a much better job this week, especially against Miller, who has four career sacks of Carr.
“He’s as dynamic a pass rusher as there is,” Raiders right tackle Marshall Newhouse said. “He can do it all.”
YANKING HIS CHAIN
Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree make up one of the best receiving duos in the NFL, both topping 1,000 yards last year. But they haven’t had much success against the Denver secondary led by Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby.
In four meetings against the Broncos as teammates, Cooper and Crabtree have averaged a combined 72.3 yards receiving per game with just one TD overall.
Adding insult was the moment in last season’s finale when Talib ripped a chain right off Crabtree’s neck. Cooper has struggled early this season with 10 catches through three games, while Crabtree left last week’s loss with a chest injury.
MOURNING RED MILLER
Red Miller, the fiery head coach who guided the Broncos from obscurity to their first Super Bowl behind the “Orange Crush” defense in 1977, died at 89 from complications of a stroke Wednesday.
Miller fueled the rivalry with the Raiders, who had gone 24-2-2 against Denver in the previous 14 seasons.
“About the first thing he does is he says to the Broncos ... ‘I will teach you how to hate the Raiders and how to beat the Raiders,’” said Sandy Clough of Denver’s 104.3 The Fan radio, who has been presiding over sports talk in Denver for decades.
The Raiders and Broncos were the two teams with the most demonstrators during the national anthem. Thirty-two Broncos knelt at Buffalo and nearly all of the Raiders sat on the bench. Khalil Mack said of the Raiders’ sit-down: “I feel like it was a one-time thing. We wanted to make our point and it’s done now.”
Broncos players met during the week and voted to stand Sunday, then issued a statement saying they meant no disrespect to the flag or the military by their kneel-downs: “We’re all team guys and we felt like that was the best direction to go,” Miller said. “It wasn’t an apology or anything like that.”