ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Last season, for the first time since 2010, the Broncos missed the playoffs. While there was plenty of blame to go around on all three units, Denver’s defense, yes the defense, had a gaping hole that hindered their ability to reach the postseason—stopping the run.
In the offseason, John Elway addressed that hole in a large way, literally. On a single day in free agency, March 11, the Broncos added a combined 659 pounds on the defensive line with the signings of Domata Peko and Zach Kerr. Now, with over half of the offseason workout program under his belt with the new team, Peko already knows exactly what his role will be on the defense.
“I’m coming in here trying to be a run stopper like I’ve been doing, and do that to the best of my ability,” he said. “Their run-average [last season] was way too high for being a great defense.”
Led by the best pass defense in the league, Denver’s defense finished tops in many statistical categories last season, however, stopping the run was close to the bottom. The Broncos defense gave up the fifth-most rushing yards per game (130.3), the 14th-worst yards per carry (4.3) and the 14th-most rushing touchdowns.
Fortunately, Peko’s 11 years with the Cincinnati Bengals have all been focused around eating up offensive lineman to stuff the run.
“Being in the AFC North, it’s a really tough run-type of division,” he said. “Being a nose guard for over a decade, that’s what I do. I like to clog up the middle of the field. I like to fill in those run lanes that were kind of lacking last year.”
Last season, while the run defense wasn’t the fault of one player, the man in the middle of the defensive line was Sylvester Williams. Williams, who signed with the Tennessee Titans this offseason, was never a true nose tackle meant to take on multiple blockers in an effort to stop the run. However, that’s what Peko’s been doing his entire career and what he’ll continue to do in Denver.
“I’m playing nose guard. It’s the same thing I’ve been playing in Cincinnati. I’m playing nose guard right now and that’s what I’ve been doing for years and that’s what I play,” he said. “It’s a little bit different now. It’s a 3-4 compared to a 4-3, but it’s all to say that I’m lined up right over the center and that’s what I’ve been doing. That’s where I make my money. Right there in the middle of the field.”
The biggest concern with the big man is his “older” age. Peko will turn 33 in November and already has 11 seasons of physical NFL caliber football under his belt. But in the two short months he’s been with the Broncos, he’s taken full advantage of their staff to get him in peak condition.
“I’m in year 12 but I feel good. My body is feeling great,” Peko said as he stood in a sopping wet sweatshirt coming off a workout. “I feel like I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been in. I’m getting stronger than I’ve ever been. The weight room staff over here is no joke. They’re doing a great job with me—[Strength and Conditioning] Coach Luke [Richesson] and also with [Defensive Line] Coach Bill [Kollar], he’s a heck of a coach…I really love it here.”
With his body bigger and better than ever, his mentality toward the game every second he’s awake hasn’t faded, either.
“I still love waking up in the morning and coming out here to hit o-linemen and hitting running backs,” he said grinning ear to ear. “That’s fun to me. I love that stuff.”
Denver courted Peko for his ability to stuff the run. Peko ultimately chose Denver for their ability to lead him to the promise land.
“In Cincy, we’re always talking about, ‘Oh, I want to win a playoff game. I want to win a playoff game.’ But over here, we’re talking about winning championships. That’s what brought me here, I want to win a championship.”
Peko’s ability to stop the run in Denver could ultimately be the deciding factor to whether he earns the Super Bowl ring he’s chasing in the Mile High City.