The raw stats on the Broncos’ running game show one of the league’s best attacks: The team is second in yards per attempt, third in yards per game, tied for third in touchdowns and one of just nine teams to not commit a fumble, much less lose one.
But situational stats tell a different story.
The Broncos are averaging 6.7 yards per carry in the first half, but only 4.7 in the second half, making it difficult to maintain balance as games progress.
They run for 5.9 yards per carry when tied or trailing, but only 4.5 when ahead, rendering the team less able to run time off the clock when it’s most needed.
That exact conundrum played out on Monday night against the Chiefs. The Broncos ran for 153 yards through the first three quarters, but just 6 in the fourth quarter, which started with the hosts holding a 10-point lead.
“We’ve just got to go out there and continue to play ball and continue to do what we do best,” Phillip Lindsay said. “You go in there and defenses are going to adjust, so we’ve got to help our line out and make the right cuts. … They’re doing a great job.”
When the Broncos went on the road to Baltimore in Week 3 — their only game away from Broncos Stadium at Mile High thus far this season — the team emphasized getting out to a fast start and executed just that. In the first quarter, Denver held leads of both 7-0 and 14-7. But the game then followed a similar script. After 60 rushing yards in the opening period alone, the Broncos merely matched that number over the next three quarters.
“I think that you can always just keep working on technical stuff,” right tackle Jared Veldheer said. “Some of that is if you’re doing something really well vs. somebody, they’re going to try to make some adjustments, so you’ve got to be ready to adjust to keep that game of chess going. From an offensive line’s perspective, you’re not going to get the same front the whole game. ... I think the big thing is we keep going and we keep being aggressive.”
The task of putting together a full-game effort against the Jets will be a difficult one, especially if Veldheer is unable to play with a knee injury. New York’s defense is eighth in the NFL at 3.8 yards per carry allowed. It’s even more stout in second halves at just 3.3 yards.
Several Broncos, including Freeman and Veldheer, noted that what jumps out on film is how hard the Jets defense plays, regardless of what the score is. Last week, even with the Jets down multiple scores to Jacksonville throughout much of the game, they forced three second-half turnovers.
“The guys play really hard,” Veldheer said. “It looks like a solid defense that flies around, plays fast and emphasizes taking away the run.”
By all accounts, the rookie duo of Freeman and Lindsay has exceeded expectations and handled its first four professional games with aplomb. Freeman is averaging 5.0 yards per carry while Lindsay is at 5.9. Only three teams — the 2016 Raiders, the 1985 Chiefs and the 1955 Bears — have had two qualifying rookie running backs run with such a high average.
“They’re both fast,” Jets head coach Todd Bowles said. “They’re both powerful inside and outside runners and great receivers as well.”
Much of the credit belongs to the Broncos’ offensive line, too, especially left guard Ron Leary, center Matt Paradis and right guard Connor McGovern. According to Football Outsiders, 73 percent of Denver’s running back carries are up the middle or toward one of the guards. The league average is only 55 percent.
“It all boils down to technique and want-to,” said McGovern on playing on the interior. “We’ve been working really hard on doing the right technique, and everyone on this [offensive line] has the want-to to do it… Our goal is to be one of the best offensive lines, whether it’s run or pass.”
From Freeman’s perspective, the credit for running the ball well down the center of the formation belongs largely to his offensive line.
“Without those guys, you don’t get the job done,” Freeman said “And they’ve done a great job this season of spurring all the backs free and helping us get those yards.”
As with almost any road game, a fast start will be a key, especially given that the Jets have struggled when falling behind in each of their three straight losses. But remaining effective on the ground and thus maintaining run-pass balance throughout the game is likely what will help the Broncos get back above .500.
“I think our team is built to win road games,” Head Coach Vance Joseph said. “Running the football, taking shots on offense with our skill guys and playing great defense — that wins road games.”