ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —** Putting weight in the past when it comes to sports usually acts as nothing more than context. Sure, the Broncos have performed exceedingly well against the Chargers in recent years, but teams change from year to year, not to mention week to week.
The Broncos head into Sunday's matchup with a win over the Chargers in Week 8, and though that game shows some elements of what might happen, each team has changed considerably since that matchup.
For the Broncos, the biggest change has been their moves on the offensive line. After moving Will Montgomery into the starting center slot while sliding Manny Ramirez to right guard and Louis Vasquez to right tackle, the line has settled in as of late, helping C.J. Anderson find the holes to give him two consecutive weeks of career-best numbers.
"Every week we build on the previous week," Vasquez said. "Every week there's different things we need to work on. But as far as us gelling together, I think we're doing a good job of it. Will, he does a good job of calling the fronts out and giving Manny, being a center before, he can help Will out a lot too, that way Will can keep his eyes on the front of the defense and he can make adjustments accordingly."
Check out the best snaps from Wednesday's practice, where the players were wearing hats and Ronnie Hillman was back on the field.
Naturally, this shift towards the run game isn't necessarily a permanent leaning to one way over the other, as Head Coach John Fox has said. "We'll lean on whatever we have to lean on. We're just trying to be efficient at both. Unless something else is created, you're either running it or throwing it. I think we're going to do what's necessary to win football games. It just so happens that over the last few weeks we've leaned a little more on one side, but at long as it's effective, that's what helps you win games. So our passing game is fine. You never know, we might put our foot on the gas and throw it 50 times. I can't really predict what's going to happen because a lot of it's based on what an opponent does and matchups."
That balance has been something that the offense has been feeling out for much of the season, and the offensive line shift was a move that gained a lot of publicity but got more comfortable as they spent more time finding their footing.
"Everybody on the outside thinks we can only do certain things but we talk about all the time we have so many guys that can make big plays and all year, we said our run game is just this close," Julius Thomas said. "It's just a little bit of communication here, a little bit better technique here. Sometimes it's like, I don't know, from that last game, it's hard to believe it, but we've shown it's just fine tuning things and we've been running it really well."
And it's not just the offense that's seeing some slight changes recently. The defense, which Chris Harris Jr. said is playing with more unity lately, has gotten back to its foundation of forcing opponents to become one-dimensional and now turnovers have started to fall their way. In their first seven games, the Broncos defense had eight takeaways: seven interceptions and one fumble recovery. But in the following six weeks, Denver has gotten 11 takeaways: seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
"Sometimes the ball just comes your way, and we've finally been able to get some lucky bounces," Harris said. "Early in the season we were forcing the fumbles but we could never recover any, but now those balls are coming our way. We knew as long as we continue to compete every down, we'll start getting some turnovers."
And against the Chargers in Qualcomm Stadium, that could be a big factor as they do much better in getting turnovers there, with 12 of their 15 takeaways this season coming at home to six giveaways on their home turf.
"They've played great at home this year," Fox said. "I think they lead the league in turnover margin at home at plus-six at their place. They're a team we're familiar with that we have a lot of respect for and we know we'll have to bring our A-game."
While the Broncos have shifted their modus operandi and personnel a bit, they've also had changes because of injuries. Julius Thomas has missed extensive time with an ankle injury and Ronnie Hillman, who was a spark earlier in the season in the running game, has been sidelined by a foot injury.
But the Chargers have also faced significant injuries, especially on their offensive line since these two teams last played.
When they last played, the Chargers were already at a loss, with starting center Nick Hardwick placed on the injured reserve in early September and backup center Rick Ohrnberger moved to the IR in early October. But since the two teams last played in late October, they lost yet another center—Doug Legursky—and have put rookie guard Chris Watt into the starting lineup at the position.
"We got a system in place here and we got a great quarterback that can make sure everything is on the right page, everything like that, directing traffic," Chargers Head Coach Mike McCoy said. "It's been the next-man-up mentality. I think the coaching staff has done an outstanding job of adjusting those players. The five centers we've used throughout the year have all stepped up at critical times and have done a nice job, did a good job of directing traffic and making all the calls and everything for us. Our system is in place. You adjust certain things, but for the most part we are going to run what we do because of who we have."
Though thrusting a rookie into center as the fifth person to play at the spot for the Chargers this season is a tough challenge, Terrance Knighton said he's seen Watt do well.
"He's a good player. When you're thrown in the fire and you have a quarterback like Philip Rivers, it puts a lot of pressure on you," Knighton said. "But the good thing is at center, you can kind of hide. It's not like he's out there on an island at left tackle or anything, but he's a good player, he fights, and he'll bring it to me and I'll be ready."
While going through centers at the rate they have is obviously difficult, San Diego has gotten some better news on the injury front with the return of Ryan Mathews and Donald Brown, in addition to Branden Oliver, who held down the fort in the backfield while the two were out with injuries.
But don't expect the change in the backfield to change the perspective for Terrance Knighton and the defensive line when it comes to stopping the run. "We don't change for running backs," Knighton said. "We change for schemes, but not for running backs. It doesn't matter if Adrian Peterson was back there. If we do what we do up front, it really doesn't matter. No ball-carrier's going to get through."
With that mindset, the defense can look to replicate the performance they got in Week 8, holding San Diego to 61 rushing yards. But with the differences we've seen each team undergo, don't expect to see the same game as last time.
Flip through photos of the Broncos' 58 touchdowns this season, from Julius Thomas' opening-week hat trick to Peyton Manning's No. 509 to Virgil Green's first NFL touchdown.