ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --It isn't news that the Broncos' ground game was cooking on Sunday. It actually has been one of the league's most effective rushing attacks for quite some time.
Since returning from a Week 7 bye, the Broncos rank sixth in the league in rushing yardage per game and eighth in average per carry. Although there have been some consistency issues and some hiccups -- particularly in the 15-12 loss to the Raiders in Week 14 -- over the long haul, the running game has started to look like what Head Coach Gary Kubiak and Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison hoped that it could be.
It took some evolution to get there. Working under center and emphasizing two-tight end sets to generate more outside power in run blocking helped. But in the last two games, the Broncos have finally succeeded in capitalizing off the inside space created through the use of three-wide receiver sets, creating situations where the receivers are able to draw cornerbacks and safeties away, which opens up lanes on each side.
One perfect example of this came on C.J. Anderson's 27-yard run in the third quarter that moved the Broncos to the San Diego 23-yard-line.
On the play, the Chargers are in a nickel alignment. One safety is deep, with the other approaching the box; he's just beyond it, six yards back of the line of scrimmage. He's on the strong side, with the tight end and two receivers to the right.
By running to the weak side, the Broncos have set up a man-on-man blocking situation: center Matt Paradis, left guard Max Garcia and left tackle Ryan Harris all have one-on-one assignments. Garcia has to get ahead to take care of Chargers LB Manti Te'o, but once he does this, all Anderson has to do is cut to the right of Garcia and Te'o and he's off and running into the open field.
It helps that the running backs are also learning how to better read the development of holes and make their cuts accordingly.
Take a look at the play that opened the Broncos' first drive with Peyton Manning taking the snaps, which came four snaps before Anderson's jaunt into San Diego territory.
The Chargers have six men in the box, and the three-wide formation has created space, but by the time Hillman begins moving toward the line of scrimmage, the seal between Harris and Garcia has become a sliver, and two defenders are about to close in from Hillman's right.
In the first part of the season, this type of play develops into a loss, or, at best, no gain. But by Week 17, Hillman turns nothing into something: a 6-yard gain.
Hillman sees the flow of the play going outside, stops and cuts back to the inside. There's no chance of a big play here; he knows it. But there is a chance at the kind of moderate gain that keeps the Broncos in good position and helps prevent them from being in third-and-long-yardage situations which leave the offense one-dimensional.
In the last game and a half, the Broncos' offense has become one that can keep an opponent off-balance by being as effective on the ground in three-wide sets as through the air. Denver has averaged 28.2 points per 60 minutes in that span, a figure that would be much higher if not for six giveaways and a missed field-goal attempt in that span.
If the Broncos can maintain this recent balance and cut the turnovers, the offense will be more than just along for the ride of the defense; it will be a reason why the Broncos flourish in the postseason.