ENGLEWOOD — When the Broncos hired coach Sean Payton, he brought a reputation for winning and discipline. But fans cannot be blamed for looking at the run of pitiful Denver offenses and using their imagination.
What will a Payton attack look like? Can he replicate the 27.5-point scoring average he posted for 16 seasons in New Orleans? Will he help quarterback Russell Wilson rebound from the worst year of his career?
Optimism has found a receptive audience. And as much as Payton is associated with Drew Brees — let's remember, he was not a Hall of Famer when he joined New Orleans — the path to success likely exists on the ground.
By design, the Broncos became bigger and more physical upfront this offseason, signing free agent right tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Ben Powers. The signs have been impossible to ignore on the roster and in the interviews. The Broncos will feature a strong rushing game. New offensive line coach Zach Strief, a former Saints tackle for Payton, firmly believes this.
"The first thing is having a play-caller who is committed to doing that, which we have. And that’s important. And I think the biggest thing for these guys — the scheme is fine. They must have a good scheme and they will — but they have to commit to it, too," Strief told Denver7.
"There’s a lot of mindset and mentality in running the football. Things are not always clean when you run the football. They don’t always work out the way you want. But can you get a bunch of guys that work basic fundamentals to give themselves a chance and can they just play their tails off until the whistle? A lot of it is the mentality they are going to have to have that we are running no matter what. That will be important as we get going. And again, it just takes stress off everybody else."
Running is considered a metaphor in life. You get out of it what you put into it. Same goes for football. If the Broncos revive their ground attack — they ranked 21st last season at 113.8 yards per game — it follows that Wilson will improve. It will allow him to excel in the manner in which he played in Seattle, executing bootlegs, keepers, rollouts, and play-action moonballs.
A lot of coaches promise a brutish rush approach, but fail to deliver, falling in love with the three-wide sets. Not even gravity can bring you down faster than watching Denver clumsily navigate those formations last season. Payton, who was once Marshall Faulk's position coach at San Diego State, can point to his resume as proof of his feelings about running.
Over his last five years in New Orleans, Payton's team posted the following averages:
Rushing Yards: 5th
The Broncos, armed with Samaje Perine, at some point, Javonte Williams and possibly another veteran or firecracker rookie, are going to run the ball. In 2017, 2018 and 2020, the Saints ranked first in rushing touchdowns, totaling 79. In those seasons, Mark Ingram (12) and Alvin Kamara (14 and 16) paced New Orleans. The Broncos have not had a running back reach double figures in rushing scores since Knowshon Moreno (10) in 2013.
What is interesting is that only once over those five years from 2017-2021 did the Saints boast a 1,000-yard rusher. Ingram pulled it off in 2017 (1,124). But Payton was not afraid to use two backs – and his quarterback Swiss Army knife Taysom Hill – to rush to create openings in the passing game.
The Saints topped out at 4.7 yards per carry and bottomed out at 3.9. As the statistics explain, however, New Orleans never abandoned the run. In Payton’s final year with the Saints, they ranked fourth with 510 attempts.
As it stands, the Broncos' starters are left tackle Garett Bolles, left guard Ben Powers, center Lloyd Cushenberry, right guard Quinn Meinerz and right tackle Mike McGlinchey.
The cultural and philosophical change starts with Powers and McGlinchey.
"We found guys who were leaders and guys that went about their work the right way. When you bring players like that in, it’s human nature for others to look to them watch them a little a bit," said Strief, who played for New Orleans from 2006-2017, starting 94 games.
"You have two guys who are good leaders and leaders in different ways. They are working their tails off and committing to the process. There’s a ton of humility in both those guys. Neither one of them came here and was like, 'I know what I am doing.' It’s been ground zero for everybody. Everybody started the first day without shoes on, at the bottom. They have been great leaders for that for our young guys."
If there's one question mark, it is with Cushenberry. While the Broncos moved on from Dalton Risner and Billy Turner, they kept Cushenberry, while bringing in competition with Kyle Fuller and draft pick Alex Forsyth.
"I think Lloyd’s been great. All the guys really. They worry about the same things we worry about. They are good guys, smart football players. There are fundamental things for all of them. And Lloyd is no different. Lloyd’s the guy when you come in having looked at it as an outsider, I feel like he’s gotten more criticism than anybody," Strief said.
"Lloyd’s going to compete for his job just like everybody else. What is great with Lloyd is that he’s a super humble guy. He’s very bright. He’s picked up the offensive quickly. He’s operated all the calls for us effectively all the way through OTAs and minicamps. He’s just got to keep working at his craft and he’s willing to do that."
It's about commitment. The Broncos are not going to run from the truth. They know they need a good ground game to achieve their goals.