Bursting through the line for jaw-dropping plays is quickly becoming the Denver Broncos’ calling card.
Only this time, the offense joined the party that’s been “pass rushers only” until Sunday.
Ronnie Hillman raced around the left sideline on a classic stretch play for a 72-yard touchdown run, and the league’s top-ranked defense collected seven more sacks in a 23-20 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
“We had three bad weeks of running the ball and tonight we got it started,” Hillman said after his third career 100-yard game. “This week it was just me and C.J. (Anderson) got tired of everyone trying to tell us that we can’t run the ball.”
The unbeaten Broncos (4-0) revved up their ground game behind Hillman and it came in handy on a day the Vikings (2-2) picked off Peyton Manning twice and turned the takeaways into 10 points.
The Broncos came into the game averaging just 57 yards rushing. With Manning in the pistol formation behind a patchwork offensive line and two tight ends lined up on the left side, Hillman went left, gathered in Manning’s pitch, hit the crease and was gone down the sideline.
It was the longest touchdown run by a Broncos running back in 15 years.
“I knew nobody was going to catch him,” teammate Demaryius Thomas said. “I was happy. It’s good for the offense, gives guys confidence we can hit those long runs.”
Hillman finished with 103 yards on 11 carries for his third career 100-yard game.
Denver’s top-ranked defense limited Adrian Peterson to 81 yards on 16 carries — when Peterson was the MVP in 2012, his lowest output was 86 yards against the Texans and Wade Phillips, now Denver’s defensive coordinator.
Peterson did get a 48-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-inches to pull Minnesota to 20-17 with 10 minutes left. Cornerback Aqib Talib was right there in the middle, but had already turned his hips and by the time he turned back, Peterson was by him.
The line “spread like the Red Sea,” Peterson marveled. “It just opened up.”
“That’s just ‘AP,’“ Von Miller said. “We came into the game knowing that he was going to make plays and we’re fortunate that that was the only big one.”
Free safety Harrison Smith’s interception two plays later set up Blair Walsh’s tying field goal from 33 yards with 5:11 remaining.
Manning drove the Broncos 55 yards in nine plays, and Brandon McManus’s 39-yard field goal with 1:51 left broke the tie.
“You have to have a short-term memory in this league,” Manning said of bouncing back from his two turnovers. “On both occasions we responded the next series with scoring drives.”
Then, Denver’s defense went to work to close out another game.
Peterson missed the block on T.J. Ward and Miller smothered the loose football after the blitzing safety’s sack-strip of Bridgewater at midfield with 29 seconds left.
“Definitely frustrating, especially when I feel like it’s my fault,” Peterson said, explaining Ward was hidden behind linebacker Brandon Marshall. “(I’ve) got to come through and make that block for Teddy.”
All four of Denver’s wins have come down to the closing minutes.
“I don’t even think of it as close anymore,” Miller said. “That’s just how we play. It’s just how football is. You stop thinking about the days when we would put up 40 and 50 (points) on teams. This is the National Football League and we’re playing tough teams every week.
“I don’t want to call it close because that’s just how it’s going to be in this league. It was another great game for us.”
NOTES: Manning, who threw a 1-yard TD pass to a wide-open TE Owen Daniels on fourth-and-goal, has now led his teams to a 4-0 start seven times, most in NFL history. Next up at four is Fran Tarkenton. ... Hillman’s long run is tied for the fourth longest in franchise history. ... Bridgewater threw for 269 yards despite not having wide receivers Charles Johnson (ribs) and Jarius Wright (hand). ... Manning joined Brett Favre (113) as the only QBs to win 100 home starts in the NFL. ... Broncos WR Cody Latimer (groin) was the only injury of note. ... The Broncos are the only team that hasn’t been scored on in the first quarter.