MIAMI -- What was the Achilles' heel of the Denver Broncos' defense a year ago has become, in radical transformation, its rock-ribbed backbone.
No phase of the Broncos' play this season has improved as much as their run defense.
The Broncos have been so efficient defending the run that in two playoff games, the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets abandoned their running games as early as the second quarter.
And though the Dolphins were fighting from a 14-0 hole, the Jets were locked in a 0-0 stalemate when they quit trying to run.
The result was one of the season's most impressive statistics: Denver has allowed a total of 28 rushing yards on 26 attempts -- barely a yard a carry -- in two postseason wins.
If the Broncos can somehow continue that trend through Super Bowl XXXIII, they should have little trouble disposing of the Atlanta Falcons and claiming their second straight championship.
But stopping Atlanta's Jamal Anderson, a veritable cannonball at running back, is perhaps Denver's biggest challenge. At 234 pounds, Anderson fits the mold of the brutish runner who has given the Broncos trouble this season.
Through 18 games, only two running backs have gained more than 100 yards against the Broncos -- 220-pound Corey Dillon of the Cincinnati Bengals had 110 yards in Week 9, and 230-pound Gary Brown of the New York Giants had 112 in Week 15. Denver also surrendered 78 yards to 245-pound Natrone Means of the San Diego Chargers in Week 10.
Anderson finished second in the league in rushing to Denver's Terrell Davis with 1,846 yards. He averaged 115.4 yards a game, 4.5 a carry.
The Broncos' transformation on defense has been little short of amazing. They ranked 16th in run defense in 1997, and their 4.7 average yield per rush was the highest ever for a Super Bowl champion. This season, they ranked third in run defense, allowing 80.4 yards a game.
They were no doubt helped by early leads that forced opponents to throw more often. But more reflective of the Broncos' new-found defensive strength was the 3.6 average rush they allowed to rank seventh in the NFL.
Continuity may be the best explanation. The Broncos lost only one key defender, middle linebacker Allen Aldridge, to free agency in the off-season. His replacement, Glenn Cadrez, finished second on the team in tackles. The two other starting linebackers, John Mobley and Bill Romanowski, ranked first and third, respectively.
Pub Date: 1/27/99