Broncos don't want to run first, but better

July, 4, 2014
Jul 4
7:30
AM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Perhaps it all boils down to the difference between more and better.

Because any rational person would have a difficult time saying the Denver Broncos' offense could do more in the coming season than it did in the last one. At least when it comes to touchdowns, league records and whoa-look-at-that explosiveness that were all in the Broncos’ jet wash last season.

The Broncos became the league’s first-ever 600-point team in 2013, had five different players score at least 10 touchdowns -- no other team in history had more than three -- and quarterback Peyton Manning set single-season records for touchdown passes (55) and passing yards (5,477). So to say more is in the offing in ’14, even with all the Broncos have done in the offseason, is borderline nuts.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Franklin
AP Photo/Jack DempseyThe Broncos are hoping that Orlando Franklin's move to left guard will help improve the team's run game.
But better? Now that’s another matter.

"Oh yeah, we can be better. We can do some things better, we can make better calls, I can make better calls, I can get us in better situations," Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. "There are some things we’ve got our eyes on."

And one of those is a simple matter of physics. That when the defense gets smaller to defend the Broncos’ high-wire passing game, the Broncos have to find a way to pound away better, more efficiently, in the run game.

No, the Broncos aren't moving toward some outdated idea, at least in these pass-happy times, that balance on offense means some kind of 50-50 split between run and pass. The Broncos were about at a 58-42 split in pass plays to runs last season, and with Gase a 60-40 split will likely be the starting point to any discussion about "balance."

But the Broncos do want, when the opportunity presents itself, to run the ball better against the vast array of smaller defensive personnel groupings in front of them. It’s not complicated -- the Broncos play out of a three-wide receiver set much of the time, about three-quarters of the time this past regular season, closer to 90 percent in the postseason.

That means they face defenses' specialty packages, with primarily with five or six defensive backs, most of the time. Formations that also include smaller, quicker defensive fronts as well.

So much so that last season when the Broncos handed the ball to their No. 1 back, Knowshon Moreno, he was running against six or fewer players in the box on 80 percent of his carries. Moreno finished the year with his first 1,000-yard campaign, but at 4.3 yards per carry against those lighter defensive groupings, the Broncos saw room for improvement as the team's yards-per-carry average overall was 4.1.

And that’s why when it came time to make decisions, the Broncos didn’t offer Moreno a deal in free agency -- he signed a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins and will miss the next month or so after arthroscopic surgery. Instead they moved Montee Ball into the starting role and shifted Orlando Franklin to left guard, a move that gives Denver perhaps the biggest guard tandem in the league.

Even when they were thinking about their passing game, like when they used a second-round pick on wide receiver Cody Latimer, as the Broncos lauded Latimer’s combination of size and speed, they still had some visions of the run game dancing in their heads, as John Elway also called Latimer the "best blocking wide receiver in the draft."

A big part of the foundation of Manning’s play in an offense has always been the play-action passing game, but the run game must be a threat for that to work as defenses must believe the ball will actually end up with the running back. And when Gase talks about the touchdowns the Broncos left unscored last season, it’s often because they couldn’t find a way to get the ball into the end zone from inside the 5-yard line.

For example, Broncos kicker Matt Prater made three 19-yard field goals in 2013 -- two in the regular season, one in the AFC Championship Game. In all three cases the Broncos had failed to convert third-and-goal plays from their opponents’ 1-yard line, and in all three cases the field goal followed an incomplete pass.

The Broncos don’t want to be anything close to a run-first team, but they want to be a run-when-they-need-to team to close out games and to help keep the offense’s biggest asset -- Manning -- out of harm’s way by slowing down opposing pass-rushers.

"Any time an offense is balanced, it means they’re running the ball pretty well," guard Louis Vasquez said. "And that’s a focus for us this year."

"We’re always going to try to get the best look, to do the best thing in each situation for the offense to be successful," Gase said. "The more things we can do, the more options we have. We want to be able to execute the plays we want in those situations. If that’s throwing, that’s throwing the ball, if it’s running, then we want that available, too."

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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