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Time to run: Broncos aim to establish physical identity upfront

Denver's offense works best when it runs first
Dalton Risner, r m
Posted at 11:11 AM, Dec 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-12 14:40:53-05

DENVER — Words remain unnecessary.

The Broncos told you they didn't trust their passing game when they elected not to go for it on fourth-and-3 with 6:13 remaining in last Sunday's game. Denver has not been good in those spots. And their quarterback Drew Lock, outside of fourth quarters against the Chargers and Falcons, has not produced in those moments.

So, the Broncos gave the ball back to Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, believing they would need a stop eventually, and that they could win with their defense.

They did not.

It helps explain why the Broncos are 4-8 and the Chiefs are 20-1 over the past 21 games.

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The Broncos need an offensive identity. There are slivers of hope peaking through the cumulonimbus clouds. The Broncos' ground game is starting to take root. And it's becoming clear, given the Broncos' turnover issues, Denver is best when it runs first.

The Broncos rushed for 179 yards against the Chiefs, including a season-high 65-yard burst from Melvin Gordon. It kept the Broncos within striking distance, and is one area where the team is showing improvement in a disappointing season.

The Broncos have jumped from 106.9 yards to 118.9 yards per game over the past three weeks. Denver ranks 12th overall in rushing. A top-10 finish would represent a foundation entering an offseason when quarterback uncertainty looms.

The Broncos are likely to bring in someone to compete with Lock for the job or acquire a proven arm to take over, such as Detroit's Matthew Stafford. Still, a good ground game is a to a quarterback what a double play is to a pitcher — their best friend.

Rolled-up sleeves, bloody knuckles, that is something the Broncos embrace upfront.

"That’s an identity I’ve felt this whole season, and that’s an identity we need to take pride in as an offensive line. You watch that film and we rushed for (179), but we could have rushed for 250," left guard Dalton Risner said.

"You guys can see the trend. When we run the football -- really, when any team runs the football -- a lot of things open up for it for us. We need to continue establishing that identity, and we need to continue rushing for 150-plus yards and establishing that. People will know, ‘Hey, these Broncos are going to grind it down the field. The O-line is going to work, running backs are going to hit their holes and wide receivers are going to block, too.’^"

While the Broncos are running better, who will get the ball over the final stretch remains a question. Gordon is coming off his best game as a Bronco, logging 131 yards on 15 carries. He paces the Broncos in rushing yards (685), attempts (149) and touchdowns (six). He helped win the Jets' game, and appears to be getting stronger at the point of attack.

For how long?

Gordon's court date for his Oct. 13 DUI arrest was pushed to next Monday. If he pleads to a deal will the NFL quickly suspend him for the final three games? Or will his ban begin next season?

Phillip Lindsay is prepared to take over, but has hit a speedbump. With Lindsay not viewed as receiving threat, opponents appear to be stacking the box to stop when he's in the game. He has a strong 440 yards on 96 carries. However, he has 153 yards on his last 51 attempts, 3.0 per click. It appears directly related to his diminished role in the passing attack. During the past five games, he has zero catches on five targets.

It doesn't mean Lindsay cannot run well -- he can -- but the lack of balance suggests that Royce Freeman might need some reps to keep opponents guessing if Gordon is suspended.

Again, Lock has struggled -- he has nine touchdowns and 13 picks -- and the run game can open the middle of the field. He has not found his traction on intermediate throws. Play-action can help that. And it starts upfront.

"I think you always want that to be part of who you are. I think it’s the best thing. I think you need to run the ball not only for your offense but for your defense as well," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "If you can create -- not only be efficient -- but create explosive plays and those runs can get you in the end zone, that’s ultimately the goal."

It is doubtful that right guard Graham Glasgow plays Sunday because of a foot injury. Austin Schlottman would replace him. ...

Receiver Diontae Spencer is set to play and should resume his role as the lead punt returner. ...

Bradley Chubb is unsure if Von Miller will return this season. He is hopeful. "It would be crazy to play together again," Chubb said.

The Panthers activated several starters off the COVID-19 restricted list, including wide receiver Curtis Samuel. The Broncos have been preparing all week as if he would play.