ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As C.J. Anderson walked back through the tunnel behind the west sideline Thursday, the "next man up" cliche' that has become NFL mantra again came into play.
Sometimes, the "next men" ensure no drop-off. At others, there's a sizable gap. It was more the former than the latter for the Broncos at running back in their 21-16 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
They learned more about Juwan Thompson and Kapri Bibbs in particular, the two undrafted rookies who combined for 10 of the Broncos' 22 carries. Thompson racked up 59 yards on six carries; Bibbs had 18 on four, including a touchdown.
"We're all just trying to step up and show that we're the best (group) in the league, and if we drop one, the next one can just step up and play," said Bibbs.
Without the concussed Anderson and starter Montee Ball, who had an appendectomy Monday, Thompson and Bibbs had plenty of chances -- and room to run.
The statistic that popped off the gamebook was Thompson's average of 9.8 yards per carry, accomplished via simple execution of a key tenet of the Broncos' running game dating back to the salad days of Terrell Davis: make "one cut and go." Thompson saw the holes develop, made his move and accelerated forward.
"You see a lot of grass, just go," said Thompson. "Green means 'go,' so that's what I did."
On his first carry of the second half, Thompson sprinted 15 yards up the middle -- including five yards after contact. This was typical of his carries, whether shedding a tackler, as he did on that play, or bulling through a defender, Thompson runs to contact.
"I'm not the shiftiest guy, but I can get out in open space and make people miss here and there. But I do like to make people feel the pain -- just to make sure, just don't try to tackle me the next time. But that's just how the game is played."
One play after his 15-yard pickup, Thompson dashed 22 yards around right end, running through and over Seattle's Jeremy Lane in the process. But a holding penalty against tight end Gerell Robinson -- which, admittedly, helped make the sweep possible -- brought it back.
Then it was Bibbs' turn. On the next snap, he darted 25 yards around the right side. Again, it was nullified by a holding penalty on Ben Garland -- although, in that case, the call was borderline, and it was unlikely to affect the play, anyhow.
If those two plays had stood, Thompson would have finished with 81 yards on seven carries, and Bibbs with 43 yards on five -- which would have been a combined 10.3-yard average. Both plays were fine examples of the vision and power the rookies possess.
Although Bibbs, Thompson, Brennan Clay and Jerodis Williams are fighting for the same meal -- a spot on the roster -- they haven't let their professional scrum become personal.
"These are my brothers," said Bibbs. "It's all competition when we're out there on that field, but at the end of the day, we've got each other's back. So it's always good seeing your brother have success, and then you go out and have success right behind them."
As much as they did on the ground, the best play for either was arguably Thompson's pickup of a Heath Farwell's blitz on third-and-10 5:26 into the fourth quarter. Without Thompson's block, Osweiler is crushed, and doesn't complete the 17-yard strike to Bennie Fowler that preserved what eventually became a 10-play, 80-yard march to the game-winning touchdown pass.
Pass protection remains the top priority of Denver's running backs, and Thompson's 225-pound frame and experience in David Cutcliffe's air-centric offense at Duke gives him a leg up.
"I learned a lot in those four years, especially just the learning of everything that's pass-oriented," said Thompson. "Pass first, run second. Special teams is a big part of everything. So I learned from (Cutcliffe) a lot that the passing game is the strongest. So that played a big part."
And then there's Cutcliffe's background with Peyton Manning. He was the University of Tennessee's offensive coordinator when Manning played there, and the relationship remains strong, manifested by Manning's offseason work at Duke with some of his receiving targets.
That was a reason why Thompson chose the Broncos after passing through the draft without being chosen. Having passed the intellectual challenge of Duke's offense -- particularly in the quick decision-making it asks of its players -- Thompson felt his background gave him an edge in Denver's offense, which shares some traits with Duke's.
"I didn't want to go somewhere where it was just so easy to pick up everything. And then the competition, everyone is on the same page," Thompson said. "I wanted to go somewhere where it would be tough for everyone, so I made that decision."
Thompson's strengths are not the same as his fellow running backs, which makes the Broncos' evolving competition all the more intriguing. Each brings something unique to the position group.
"We're really deep at running back and now if you ask me, I think we have the best tandem back here. We got C.J., Montee, Ronnie, Brennan, and Juwan, Jerodis," said Bibbs.
"And I feel like at any time, those guys can step up and we can all make big plays at any given time, so you can't really sleep on any of us."