ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Mike Shanahan brings his Washington Redskins offense to Denver Sunday, the folks in the seats at Sports Authority Field at Mile High will certainly see a little of the league's new-age style with Robert Griffin III at quarterback.
But many will see what they’ve seen so many times before, with so many 100-yard games from so many backs, a pile of dominating wins and Mile High salutes. They will see a late-round draft pick -- Alfred Morris, Redskins’ sixth-rounder in 2012 -- working behind an offensive line with five players drilled to move as one, to fire out, all in one direction, to sweep defenders away like a windshield wiper.
They will see, once again, Mike Shanahan’s zone run game. And in an increasingly pass-happy world, Shanahan still believes there is a place for a run game.
“No. 1, you need great players,’’ Shanahan said. “You’ve got to have everybody that buys in … you’ve got to have some very unselfish wide receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, quarterbacks.’’
And how the Broncos, who have faced just one team that has run it more than they passed it this season, handle that will have a lot to do with how Sunday goes. They do have some inside information, however, on Shanahan's staples.
Alex Gibbs, who carries the title of Broncos offensive consultant, was a long-time Shanahan assistant in Denver, including the two Super Bowl wins during Shanahan’s tenure. Also, the quarterback behind center for those teams -- John Elway -- runs the Broncos’ football operations, so when the Redskins move from the read-option to the traditional zone run game, the Broncos will know what’s coming.
But knowing what’s coming and stopping it has always been the riddle of Shanahan’s run game. Gibbs, Shanahan and Redskins running backs coach Bobby Turner have been at the heart of it all since Shanahan was hired by Pat Bowlen in Denver in 1995.
And Turner has certainly been the under-the-radar guy of the triumvirate. The late Mike Heimerdinger, also a long-time Broncos assistant and Shanahan’s former college roommate at Eastern Illinois, routinely joked before every draft “if Bobby likes a running back then I like him a lot, too.’’
They never felt the need to like that running back in the first round. Since the start of the 1995 season the Broncos have had 18 different running backs rush for at least 100 yards in a game, 14 of those backs played for Shanahan in Denver. And none of the 14 who played for Shanahan was a first-round pick. The closest were Clinton Portis, who was a second-round selection in the 2002 draft, and Tatum Bell, a second-rounder in 2004.
But Terrell Davis was a sixth-round pick (’95), Mike Anderson was a sixth-round pick (’00), Olandis Gary was a fourth-round pick (’99), Quentin Griffin was a fourth-round pick (’03), Peyton Hillis was a seventh-round pick (’08) while both Mike Bell and Selvin Young were signed as undrafted rookies in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
Toss in Reuben Droughns, who was signed as a fullback after he had been released by the Lions, and it should shock that the Redskins took Morris on the draft’s third day and he went on to roll up 1,613 rushing yards last season.
“You know what you’re getting there,’’ Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has said. “It’s all discipline, one-cut running backs who don’t waste steps and they’re coaching it the same way and finding the right guys. That's hard to stop when everybody sticks to what they're supposed to do. We know what it looks like -- we used to see it every day.’’
Morris is another classic find. He showed up to the Senior Bowl in January of 2012, where the Redskins staff was coaching, as a late addition. He was almost sent home because the Washington coaches had wanted a fullback, not another running back, but Morris volunteered on the spot to play fullback. He did not get a carry in the game, but Shanahan said the coaches had seen enough to keep his name handy on the draft weekend.
Morris is currently ninth in the NFL in rushing with 472 yards, but he leads the league’s running backs at 5.2 yards per carry. Washington also figures to be the sternest test of the season for the Broncos' base defense after the Colts rode a far more balanced attack than most opponents have offered to a 39-33 win this past Sunday night.
With the Broncos having sported big leads early in most games, opposing offenses have collectively ditched the run. The Ravens threw the ball 41 more times than they ran it, the Giants 30 more times, Jacksonville 15 more times and Dallas 22 more times without a rushing attempt in the fourth quarter. In the Broncos’ only loss, the Colts had seven more passes than runs.
The Eagles, who rushed for 166 yards in a Week 4 loss to the Broncos, ran it four more times than they threw it in the game.
The Broncos expect the Redskins, who threw it 70.9 percent of the time in their 0-3 start, to operate more as they have over the past two weeks -- Washington is 2-1 in those games. Over their past three games the Redskins have run the ball on 52 percent of their offensive snaps.
“Their last couple of weeks -- well over 400 yards of total offense, over 200 yards rushing -- 45 points last week in the win, they’re obviously better,’’ Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "It looks like [Griffin] is getting healthier as the year goes on.''
“If you can run the football and the defense has to respect it, I think it gives you a big advantage once you get to the playoffs to have a chance to win,’’ Shanahan said. “ … The defense can usually take a way a one-dimensional team, but when you can do both, it really puts a lot of pressure on a defense.’’