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Denver Broncos Running Game Needs to Improve

The Broncos mere 2.2 yards a carry has their rushing attack ranked last in the NFL, and caused an uproar in Bronco Nation, aimed particularity at Laurence Maroney.

I've been asked why Maroney, who has rushed 23 times for 29 yards, is still on the roster? Here's my best observations on that, and the Broncos lack of production on the ground:

The Broncos are rushing without a [true] fullback. Last season, statistics showed the Broncos rushing attack was most effective when Spencer Larsen lined up in the backfield, and the running game was least effective in single-back formations.

Taking note of that, the Broncos utilized fullback Larsen more at the start of the season, before he was injured. The running game struggled even with Larsen at fullback, but showed signs of possible improvement. Last week Larsen was inactive, and the running game was ineffective.

Tight End Dan Gronkowski did line up at fullback for the Broncos a few times last week, but was clearly not as productive in run blocking as Larsen is. While it is true that Maroney does seem to hit the hole quite slowly, he, and the other running backs, are running behind a line featuring a rookie center and first year Guard in Stanley Daniels. The blame shouldn't all be cast upon the backs for the lack of running game, neither should it be solely resting on the shoulders of the offensive line. The Broncos are a passing team, and in the modern NFL, you don't have to have a great running game if you have a fantastic passing attack, just ask New England and Indianapolis. For more on that, I move on to my next point.

In the Broncos offense, a single running back isn't asked to rush for 150 yards a game, rather, to be able to pass block, execute screen plays, and run behind one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the league. Many fans haven't taken note of this, however, and have stereo-typed running backs to be the guy that has a sole job of running over a defense for 150 yards a game and a couple of scores - and that's it.

While every coach would love a running back that can successfully run behind a line that isn't consistently opening holes, that is not what Josh McDaniels is solely looking for out of his running backs. To an extent, the Broncos running backs are doing a good job of doing what it is that McDaniels is asking of them to do, and that's not rack up the rushing yards. To expound on the fans look at the stats, coaches look at the execution, I'll use OLB Robert Ayers as an example.

The OLB position is one that has been stereo-typed into a position that asks a player to rack up the sacks. Since that is just what Elvis Dumervil did last season, fans are now expecting Ayers to fill that role. So last Sunday when Ayers totaled 5 tackles (4 solo and 1 assist), fans didn't take much note of it. McDaniels, however praised Ayers for his great game, because Ayers did what the Broncos asked of him - not to lead the NFL in sacks, but to contain the outside and slow down Chris Johnson. In the same way, the Broncos don't ask their running backs to score Fantasy Football points, but rather to do their job and have a part in the passing game.

"I don't think it's statistics for us when we looked at his performance, it was that he did his job on basically every play,"said Josh McDaniels about Ayers' play on Sunday. Similarly, the Broncos are looking for their running backs to pile up great rushing statistics.

All this is not to say the Broncos are satisfied with what the running backs have accomplished, and that they don't care the running backs aren't gaining more than 2.2 yards a carry. I am saying (a) You have to look at the big picture, not just the rushing statistics, (b) the Broncos are no longer a running team, (c) the running backs are running without Larsen lead-blocking and behind a line that has played mediocre so far this season and (d) the backs are pass protecting and providing good check-downs for Orton, and that has been overlooked.

Watching film from Sunday's game at Tennessee, I noticed on many plays Maroney or Correll Buckhalter securing key blocks - giving Orton just a half second longer in the pocket - just enough time for him to find his receivers. Maroney and Buckhalter combined to catch 7 passes for 48 yards and a score to take the lead in the fourth quarter. In two games this season, Maroney has four catches for 50 yards, while Buckhalter has 11 for 71 yards over four games - both have compiled more receiving yards than rushing yards, showing both players have been effective contributors on offense, just not the way fans take much note of.  

A solid rushing attack is something the Broncos would love to have, but having the Leagues' leading passer and the top ranked passing offense in exchange seems to be a pretty fair compromise. In time, the Broncos running game will get better - it can't get any worse. With more playing experience, the young offensive linemen will start to block better and the banged up veterans will start to perform better.

Getting second-year back Knowshon Moreno back from his hamstring injury would probably help as well. Having a great rushing attack doesn't win the NFL anymore, having a rushing attack that can set up play action and run out the clock at the end of games does. The Broncos will look to address the running game this week, but won't be bringing in any veterans or give up on Maroney yet.

The Broncos' Buckhalter and Maroney have done what the Broncos have asked of them in the passing game, now they need to figure out a way to contribute more in the running game.


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