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Run it back. Blueprint to Broncos upset of Chiefs remains dose of Double J backs

Can Williams, McLaughlin lead the way on the ground?
javonte williams
Posted at 2:02 PM, Oct 26, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-26 17:20:50-04

ENGLEWOOD — Some years ago – or maybe it was last March – the Broncos went on a free agent spending spree to reshape their offensive line. The cash confetti landed right tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Ben Powers, tight end Chris Manhertz and fullback Mike Burton.

The Broncos would make, as coach Sean Payton said multiple times, running “part of their DNA.” Form has not followed function. The Broncos rank 24th with 154 carries, and 123 from running backs. And it’s not because they are trailing. Denver has led at halftime in four of its seven games. Payton has admitted he has abandoned the run game too soon in some cases.

The statistics suggest they should lean on it this week, playing keep away from Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Broncos are fourth in the NFL in yards per carry at 5.1, their success on the range due to the Double J Ranch duo of Javonte Williams and Jaleel McLaughlin.

"I think we have a great trio with Samaje (Perine) as well. All three of our running backs are doing a great job," right guard Quinn Meinerz said. "It's been a lot of fun blocking for everyone. ... And last week, all the landmarks and aiming points we have been aiming for for a long time, they were all hitting. And we were doing our job."

Now right at a calendar year removed from ACL surgery on his right knee, Williams looks much closer to his rookie version when he ran with violent intentions, creating comic book – Boom! Pow! Bang! – collisions. Williams posted a season high 82 yards on 15 carries with a long of 21 against Green Bay. Beyond physicality, he showed his old burst once he reached the second level. Williams ranks 30th in the league with 272 yards, despite leaving after two carries against the Bears with a quad injury and missing the Jets game.

"He's been productive and running hard," offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. "I think he's feeling really confident."

Williams is the Clydesdale of this ranch. McLaughlin is the racehorse. He is not quick. He is not fast. He is sudden. His run last week vs. the Packers widened the eyes. It set up as a classic foot-in-the-ground, downhill, cutback run when he took the handoff. Instead, he went right, went left, and then juked right, leaving Packers linebacker Quay Walker on roller skates.

"The funny thing is I was watching him on film all week and he plays the cutback really well. I tried to beat him to the punch," McLaughlin said. "That's a great linebacker. He beat me to the punch. I had to make a second move. And it was great to see it work."

This is the type of instincts that explain his 6.9 yards per carry on 34 attempts, second among primary running backs to Miami’s Devon Achane (12.1). McLaughin sits 39th in the NFL with 235 yards.

"We have a great trio. And it feels awesome (that we are running well). First and foremost I am so happy for Javonte. That guys is a hard worker. And Samaje Perine (26 carries, 98 yards) is stepping up and making big plays. This is what the Broncos have been (with running backs), a brotherhood," McLaughlin said. "The run game is definitely picking up."

Together, the Double Js are averaging 5.23 yards on 97 carries. There is no easy road to a victory over the Chiefs. The Broncos have dropped 16 straight, four shy of Buffalo’s all-time opponent skid vs. the Dolphins in the 1970s, and last beat the Chiefs in Denver on Sept. 14, 2014. But running provides a potential path for an upset.

The Chiefs defense is better than anytime during their current seven-year dominance of the AFC West. However, Kansas City is vulnerable against the run – 106.7 yards per game. In the Broncos’ ugly 19-8 loss two weeks ago, Williams and McLaughlin posted 82 yards on 17 attempts, part of the team’s 115 ground output. The problem is that they managed 16 in the second half. Denver cannot win with such imbalance. The Broncos don’t pass well enough to make a one-dimensional attack sustainable.

The average score in Denver’s 16-game losing streak is alarming in a league of one-score games: Chiefs 28, Broncos 17.

In Kansas City’s latest win, they appeared bored at times, toying with Denver with trick plays, while making uncharacteristic mistakes in the red zone (one touchdown in five attempts). As great as Mahomes is – two-time MVP, two-time Super Bowl champion – he has not always played his best against Denver. He is 29-3 in the AFC West, won 13 straight division games, is 12-0 vs. the Broncos, but – I am blowing a hamstring with this stretch – he has nine interceptions vs. Denver. His next most is six vs. the Chargers. Safety Justin Simmons picked him off this season after Jonathon Cooper hit his arm on the attempt. It is part of what kept Denver close.

For the Broncos to triumph, they must win the turnover battle, must win time of possession, and must win on the range with the Double J combo of Williams and McLaughlin.