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Working On Ground Game Takes Balancing Act

Posted Sep 13, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at how the Broncos will look for balance between the running game and the passing game.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Forty-nine points. That's obviously what you want from an offense, and if the Broncos keep racking up scores that are more typical of the NCAA basketball tournament than the NFL regular season, no one in orange and blue will complain.

But for such productivity to continue against defenses that will surely adapt to try and contain the Broncos' plethora of reliable passing targets, the Broncos will, at some point, have to lean on the ground game that has been a priority inside their meeting rooms and practices, but in the public sphere appears to be regarded as an afterthought.

It's true that an elite rushing game is no longer necessary to make it to a Super Bowl; of the last 10 teams to play in the biggest game, just two were in the league's top 10 in rushing yardage or yardage per attempt, and six ranked 24th or lower in yardage per attempt -- with three finishing dead last in total rushing yardage. 

But Baltimore and San Francisco bucked this trend last year; the Ravens were No. 11 in rushing and the 49ers No. 4. They had reliable, power backs to whom they could turn in the postseason: Ray Rice had 306 yards in last year's playoffs for the Ravens; San Francisco's Frank Gore ran for 319 yards in three postseason games.

At some point, the Broncos need the power game. It wasn't there when they needed it against the Ravens last January, which was due as much to injury as any other circumstance, as the Broncos were without Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno by the fourth quarter of the 38-35 loss.

But the time to develop it is now. The running game doesn't work like a light switch; it can't simply be turned on and off. It has to be cultivated -- even if it is simply as a change of pace to try and capitalize on defenses that overplay the pass.

As Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase re-examined the Week 1 rout of Baltimore, he found himself looking at the running game and wishing he would have handled it differently.

"Last week, I got away from the running game probably a little too quick. I would have liked to stay with it probably a little bit longer," he said. "(By the) second half I felt like we were a little bit more balanced."

Before halftime, the Broncos executed 20 pass plays, eight runs and a Peyton Manning kneel down. Then the Broncos opened a 42-17 lead by early in the fourth quarter, having called 22 pass plays against just seven runs. It wasn't until the Broncos went into clock-chewing mode that they began running the ball more often; after Manning's sixth touchdown pass, the Broncos called twice as many runs (six) as pass plays (three), not including a final-snap kneeldown.

"We tried to balance it up a little bit – attack the defense a little bit differently than what we did in the first half," said Gase. 

Over the course of a 16-game season, there's not going to be a 50-50 balance in this offense, or in the league at large, not as long as Manning stays healthy and the league remains in the throes of an aerial-intensive phase that appears unlikely to abate in the near future.

But that doesn't mean the Broncos want to linger at a ratio like they logged last week: nearly twice as many pass plays (45) as runs (23), which included the pair of kneeldowns. That places the Broncos 23rd in the league in run percentage through Thursday night's play (33.8 percent); it is worth noting that of the nine teams that have run less often than the Broncos, eight lost in Week 1.

The natural tendency to run when protecting a lead will likely bring the Broncos run-pass ratio back into a balance that more closely resembles the league's run percentage last year (42.3 percent). 

Still, the Broncos' talk of balance can only be that until it's put into practice -- and even then, what they do is determined by score and defense. Had the Broncos spent the second half trailing, they would have been far less likely to go to jumbo packages to try and kick-start the ground game. Had the Ravens laid too far back in coverage, Manning might have audibled into draws, traps and stretch plays more often to capitalize on gaping holes in the box.

"We’re always looking for that balance but really it’s what’s the defense going to give us," Gase said. "That’s going to be our biggest challenge – OK, here’s what we have, that’s what we’re going to take.”

But if the Broncos are to make a Super Bowl run, at some point, it will be the run that the defense gives to them. Like the Ravens and 49ers last year, the Broncos must be able to dig down and execute in order to avoid a similar fate to the one that befell them eight months ago.