AFC West: Reuben Droughns
So young in fact that, at that point, a soon-to-be 23-year-old Ronnie Hillman (his birthday is Sept. 14), who was entering his third NFL season, was the most experienced player in the room. Montee Ball had just started his second year in the league, as had C.J. Anderson, and Juwan Thompson made the roster as an undrafted rookie.
Now, 13 games later, the Broncos are 10-3 and all four have shown the trust in the youth group was in no way misplaced. All four, with Thompson’s 63 yards rushing in the Broncos win over the Buffalo Bills Sunday, have led the Broncos in rushing for at least one game this season.
Along the way Anderson has had two 100-yard games and Hillman has had two 100-yard games to go with Anderson’s three rushing touchdowns against the Bills.
“You try to go out there and make plays and find a way to win; you have to give it to the big boys up front,’’ Anderson said. “You have to give it to Juwan, who had a hell of a game [Sunday] so that just lets you know the big boys up front they are doing their thing. It doesn’t matter who’s in the game in our backfield, we’re going to make it happen.’’
With Ball (right groin) and Hillman (left foot) still working their way back from injury, the Broncos have added Jeremy Stewart, a third-year back who played 17 games over two seasons with the Oakland Raiders, to the mix. After Anderson left Sunday’s game briefly with a left ankle injury, Stewart got his first carry.
With the Broncos’ shift in recent weeks to a more balanced look on offense, Anderson has had 80 carries over the last three games. That’s the busiest three-game stretch for any Broncos running back since Reuben Droughns in 2004.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase said it’s Anderson’s ability to keep moving forward without taking the direct hits from would-be tacklers that will enable Anderson to carry the ball plenty if the Broncos want him to.
“He’s a big guy,’’ Gase said. “With the amount of carries he’s had, he’s probably only taking one shot where he didn’t see it … but for the most part he does a great job of putting himself in a great position of not taking that direct hit.”
“I’m good, I’m good,’’ Anderson said. “I’ve been saying … I’m as good as long as those big boys up front are good. As long as they keep doing what they’re doing, I keep picking the right spot, we’ll keep making it happen.’’
Ball and Hillman worked with the team’s strength and conditioning staff during practices last week but have yet to take part in a workout with the team since their respective injuries. Ball has missed the last three games. Hillman has missed the last four.
Anderson has earned his place at the front of the line in terms of carries, but if and when the Broncos get fully staffed at running back, Hillman would quickly see some snaps in the longer-yardage packages because of his ability in the passing game.
Studesville has said “things always work themselves out,’’ and that the work will be divvied up to those “who earn it and get prepared to play.’’
“I think all along we felt like the guys in our room could do the job if they were asked to do the job,’’ Anderson said. “We are young, but we prepare hard and when [Studesville] says go in, we go in. Do what they ask you to do and do it right, that’s how we approach it and I think that whoever goes in has gotten the job done.’’
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
In light of all of the injuries in Denver's backfield this season, I wanted to update a look at Denver's tailbacks since coach Mike Shanahan took over in 1995 that I put together this summer:
Terrell Davis: The first and the best of the bunch. The sixth-round pick from Georgia was the spark to Denver's only two Super Bowl wins. He was a Super Bowl and NFL MVP and tallied 7,607 career rushing yards and 60 touchdowns before knee injuries cut short his brilliant career.
Olandis Gary: He took over for an injured Davis in 1999 and ran for 1,159 yards. He was injured the next year and was never a factor again.
Mike Anderson: The sixth-round pick from Utah became the offensive rookie of the year after rushing for 1,487 yards in 2000. The tough Anderson dealt with injuries but came back in 2005 with another 1,000-yard season.
Clinton Portis: He was a second-round pick and more highly touted than any other Denver running back of this era. Portis ran for more than 1,500 yards in both of his seasons in Denver before he was shipped to Washington for star cornerback Champ Bailey.
Reuben Droughns: The former fullback and special-teams player emerged during the 2004 season and ran for 1,240 yards. He was traded to Cleveland the next spring.
Tatum Bell: The 2004 second-round pick ran for 1,025 yards in 2006 and then was traded to Detroit for cornerback Dre' Bly. Bell was re-signed Tuesday and he will suit up Sunday at Atlanta.
Mike Bell: The undrafted rookie from Arizona shook up the league in 2006 with eight rushing touchdowns, but he was converted to fullback and rarely played last season. He was cut before training camp started.
Travis Henry: Signed to be the answer to the revolving door, Henry's was a disaster. He led the NFL in rushing after his first month in Denver but then his Denver career was riddled with him fighting a drug suspension (which he eventually won) and injuries. He was cut this June after he stopped showing up to work. He is currently facing federal drug charges.
Selvin Young: The 2007 undrafted rookie from Texas led Denver in rushing with 729 yards and was going to camp No. 1 on the depth chart, but he didn't win the role and is a backup. Young has been dealing with a groin injury for more than month.
Michael Pittman: The veteran offseason pickup took the job away from Young. He brought toughness to the position. But he was lost for the season earlier this month with a neck injury.
Andre Hall: The speedster had a role on the offense but he broke his hand and was put on the injured reserve the same day as Pittman was.
Ryan Torain: The rookie from Arizona State drew comparisons to Davis from Shanahan but he broke his elbow early in training camp. Torain came back and became the No. 1 tailback. He looked good against Cleveland last week as he had 12 carries for 68 yards. But he blew out his knee and he is lost for the season.
Peyton Hillis: He will likely get the primary carries against Atlanta on Sunday. But Hillis was an emergency option. He is a seventh-round pick whose main position is fullback.