EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. --** Over the course of Peyton Manning's 17-year career there's been a time or two where defenses have simply dared the offense to run the ball.
"I felt like they said, 'You're not going to beat us with the pass today,'" Ronnie Hillman said. "They paid for it.
"You're going to have your days when teams are going to pick their poison, and they picked the wrong one."
The Broncos attacked the Jets' sixth-ranked run defense Sunday about as frequently as they went to the air, rushing 33 times in 68 plays and picking up 138 yards, good for a 4.2 yards-per-carry average. Just as importantly, the runs were consistently effective, as Denver picked up seven first downs compared to 13 through the air. The balance, which was no doubt motivated by the Jets' emphasis against the pass, proved to be a big part of the Broncos' 31-17 victory.
"They were dropping a number of defenders on some downs and distances and that's why the running game ended up opening up," Manning said, who noted that Rex Ryan's use of his linebackers to jam outside receivers showed a lack of fear of Denver's ground attack.
"The way the Jets played us, my guess was that they didn't think much of our running game coming into the game."
The sustained success on the ground came in Hillman's first NFL start, made in Montee Ball's absence due to a groin injury. Hillman became the fourth Bronco and first since Clinton Portis in 2002 to have 100 or more yards in his first career start, finishing with 24 carries for 100 yards (4.2 average) despite taking several carries late in obvious running situations against the Jets' stout front.
"It was exciting," Hillman said of getting the starting nod. "You just know that you've got to produce right away. You're not counting on somebody in front of you to start it off, and then you come in. So it was kind of nice to just get out there and just play -- not have to worry about anything."
Hillman's opportunities have been intermittent since Ball was drafted in April of 2013, with a six-week span last season where he dressed in one game and didn't take a carry. His 24 totes on Sunday were a career high, exceeding his 22 carries against the Ravens in the playoffs following the 2012 season when Knowshon Moreno went down with an injury against a defense that similarly was daring the Broncos to run.
Equally encouraging for Denver's ground game was a solid performance from undrafted rookie Juwan Thompson, who scored his first career touchdown last week. Against the Jets, he took eight carries for 38 yards (4.8 average), displaying his power throughout the day and some agility and acceleration on a 16-yard carry in the third quarter.
"It just helps me get more comfortable," Thompson said. "Practice is practice, but the game is totally different."
"As I get more and more reps, I'm getting used to everything and the speed of the game, and today helped a lot."
The overall surge on the ground was a welcome sight after the team averaged 2.7 yards per carry against the Seahawks and Cardinals and ran the ball just 33 percent of the time.
"It's something we work on," Julius Thomas said. "It doesn't always go as planned, and sometimes we get a bad reputation about that or people have negative comments towards our offense for what's going on, but it's always just such little things when it comes down to executing those run plays. We were able to hit some of those creases today."
The fact that the Broncos took the Jets' looks that heavily favored coverage and punished them with the run should bode well for the future, as it's something Manning and Co. have seen frequently and certainly will see in the future. Whether it's Hillman, Thompson, C.J. Anderson or Ball, when he returns, the teams' backs certainly plan on making defenses pay if they show a lack of respect to the Broncos' run game going forward.
"It's definitely a pride thing," Hillman said. "They felt like we couldn't run the ball. It bit them in the (butt)."