DENVER —** It's not just the looming quarterback competition that keeps the Broncos coaching staff busy. The depth in the running backs room is creating one of the most interesting position battles on the roster with a veteran who understands the weight of what's on the line and a rookie who's improving rapidly.
"We have a great group in our running back room," rookie RB Devontae Booker said. "All of us can carry the load down the field if we need to. … We all go out to compete and get after it every day. It makes each one of us better."
C.J. Anderson is the obvious leader of the group. He rushed for a team-best 50 yards on 11 attempts in Saturday's victory over the Los Angeles Rams. But after No. 22, the field is wide open. Booker tag-teamed with Anderson in the first half Saturday, but struggled on the stat sheet, finishing with just 13 yards on eight carries.
"Today, [Booker] didn't feel so good running the ball," Anderson said. "I just told him, 'You know, you made other plays, you caught the ball out of the backfield with that screen — that was a big play. You pushed the pile, moved the sticks on third and one — that's a good play. … You've just got to think about what your job is in the aspect of the game."
The night, however, belonged to five-year veteran Ronnie Hillman. The running back entered the game feeling the pressure to make a good impression, and he responded. Hillman was the only back to score a touchdown Saturday night, as his seven-yard rush in the middle of the third quarter gave the Broncos comfortable separation that would last through the final whistle. He was the "Flash" to Anderson's "Thunder" and finished the game with 45 yards on just five carries, including an electric 21-yard dash in the fourth quarter.
"I don't think it changes anything," Hillman said of his performance. "I think I still have to go out and prove that I can still play and make the team. I just came in with the mindset that I've got to make it hard on the coaches and if I make it hard on the coaches, then I did my job."
As they head into the first round of cuts when the roster shrinks from 90 to 75, Hillman's letting his play speak for itself.
"Ronnie has played well the last two weeks," Head Coach Gary Kubiak said. "Ronnie is in a battle; I think everybody knows that. [RB] Kapri [Bibbs] has done some good things and Ronnie has responded as a player the last two weeks. That's what you're looking for. I'm very proud of him, he did some good stuff tonight."
Hillman, along with Booker, has been battling with Bibbs for the last few weeks, with Bibbs having a convincing performance in the preseason opener. However, after leading the team in rushing with 53 yards on 15 carries against the Bears, Bibbs has taken a backseat to Booker and Hillman, rushing for 11 yards on five carries Saturday against the Rams.
With uncertainty at quarterback, the Broncos have relied heavily on the running game to establish the offense early on, and Saturday was no different. Anderson and Co. had their work cut out for them as they were going up against one of the best front-sevens they'll face. After a slow start, the backs were able to pound the ball down the field and open up some options for Siemian at quarterback.
"I think I tried to force a big play early instead of just being patient with it," Anderson said of his start, which was briefly interrupted by a cut on his ear that required stitches. "After I got the stitches, to be honest, I got upset so I was probably running a little angry. Other than that, you've got to give it to the big boys up front. They started creating some lanes, even little lanes, and I got myself, 'Book' and Ronnie [Hillman] to break a couple of tackles and spring some runs."
The Broncos pulled out a narrow victory over the Rams after falling down early and battling back. (photos by Gabriel Christus unless otherwise noted)
In fact, quarterback Trevor Siemian didn't even attempt a pass until the third series. Anderson's number was called for the first five offensive plays before Booker came in on the second series to try and convert on third and six. After the first two series, the Broncos only had seven yards of total offense, all coming on the ground.
"That was just the plan," Siemian said of the offense's decision to run the ball early. "We knew they had a good front-seven. We wanted to kind of get after them early, but we knew it would be a tough task going against them."
When Siemian started completing passes to receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders on the outside, the holes began to open for the backs. Before Siemian hit tight end Virgil Green in the end zone for a one-yard TD, Anderson set up the entire play with back-to-back-to-back runs of 12, 18 and five yards, respectively. Once the backs settled down and waited for the gaps to open, the Broncos were able to establish the run game, finishing with 120 yards on 33 attempts.
However, what isn't established is how the rotation fills out behind Anderson. Will it be the rookie? The star of the first preseason game? The vet?
There's only one chance left to find out.