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Rush to judgment: Forget QBs, Broncos need to run ball to win

'We want to be physical,' Fangio says of ground game
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Posted at 3:29 PM, Jul 29, 2021

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — At 9:15 a.m., Vic Fangio emerged from the locker room and began walking the field. Need to get in those 10,000 steps, coach said.

Watching Fangio take those steps served as a reminder that the Broncos most convenient path to success could be on the ground. While the daily discussion centers on the quarterback derby -- Teddy Bridgewater won the day with efficiency and the best pass of camp on a fade route touchdown to Tim Patrick -- the reality is more nuanced.

Is it reasonable for the Broncos to expect their quarterback to play significantly better when that thinking has cratered this team's hopes for four straight losing seasons?

Of course, Bridgewater or Lock could improve on last year. But believing a huge bump will transpire is the equivalent of a baseball team pinning their postseason hopes on every position player enjoying a career year. Look at the personnel, and it's easy to see this team running the ball well to set up play action, bootlegs and higher percentage passes.

Fangio did not disagree when I asked him Wednesday after the second day of camp.

"We do want to be physical," Fangio said. "There's a narrative out there that the ball is being passed more in the NFL, and it’s really not that true. I did a study of this. From 1980 to now, passes have increased 4-point-some percent. OK, you still have to be able to run it and stop it. Yes, some teams rely on one more than another. But running the ball is still very important."

The Broncos ranked 13th last season at 119.9 rushing yards per game, their closest thing to an identity. Melvin Gordon averaged 4.98 yards per carry over the final eight games. Gordon enters camp looking sharper, showing more bounce and burst. A normal offseason helped, but he is also competing -- "I treat every year like I am a free agent," he said -- with second round rookie Javonte 'Pookie' Williams and Mike Boone.

Gordon told Denver7 in April that his first season in Denver was "difficult," trying to replace the wildly popular and productive Phillip Lindsay, while struggling to connect with with teammates because of COVID-19 protocols and fans in sparsely populated empty stadiums.

Wednesday, Gordon admitted the competition with Lindsay was "in his head."

"A lot of peopled loved Phil here. It was like if I got drafted to the Packers out of Wisconsin. It's how the fans would feel and people would feel. They feel like you are taking away from their guy. It was in my head. But I got over it," said Gordon, who led Denver with 10 touchdowns last season. "My mindset shifted more toward getting to the playoffs."

Denver averaged 4.3 yards per attempt, 15th overall. The Broncos, and specifically offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, ran into issues trying to make the Gordon-Lindsay combo work because it lacked dimensions. The Broncos gave up on Lindsay in the passing game -- he had 14 targets and seven catches in 11 games. As such when was in the backfield, opponents played the run.

There should be more versatility this season with the pinball style of Williams and quickness of Boone, who profiles as more than a special teams ace. Emphasizing the run requires patience, requires living with two yard pops in the first quarter to set up gash plays in the fourth quarter. And the offense must keep the game close to continue to run. That has been a problem for the Broncos who are 1-15 the past two seasons when trailing at halftime.

Yet, remember this: The Broncos won only five games last season, four of those came when they exceeded 100 yards on the ground (Jets, Patriots, Chargers, Dolphins). A deeper dive into the numbers reveals a more salient truth. The Broncos have been awful with volume throwing. They are 3-17 the past two years when eclipsing 30 attempts in a game. Compare that to 8-12 when rushing for more than 100 yards.

It doesn't mean rushing is a magic potion, but it suggests the critical nature of a balanced attack.

"[With the O-line], we are nasty. We want to be nasty, we want to show our identity. We want to come off the ball, knock people in the mouth, put them in the dirt, drive off the ball, let our backs hit the hole and our quarterbacks to come out there and hit the receivers," All-Pro left tackle Garett Bolles said. "I'm really looking forward to it, but it starts with me. It starts with Dalton [Risner]. It goes from left to right and we've just got to continue to roll each day. I'm going to try to be the best person I can be, show people the way, show people the ropes, and just do everything I can. Really looking forward to this season. I feel like we're off to a great start and you guys are going to let the show begin.”

Teddy Bridgewater did not throw an incomplete pass in 11 on 11 drills, and only one pass hit the ground in 7-on-7. He does not look to push the ball downfield, but remains "Steady Teddy" on short passes. He finished with two touchdowns, including the strike to Patrick.

Drew Lock started slowly against the first string defense. However, he finished with three completions, finishing strong with two red zone TDs.

Shelby Harris and McTelvin Agim both batted down passes in 11-on-11 work. "Best hands in the league, baby," Harris said.

Rookie Caden Sterns delivered the first interception of training camp. The safety brings intriguing athleticism and depth.

Bradley Chubb (ankle) remained held out of team drills. But should return soon as his conditioning improves.

A limited number of Broncos single-game regular-season tickets go on sale Aug. 4 at 10 am. through

Receiver Jerry Jeudy has added noticeable weight in his upper body and arms. He joked that it was from lifting "those little weights" provided by strength and conditioning coach Loren Landow.