ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The numbers posted by the Broncos' running game are disappointing through three weeks. The Broncos are 30th in yardage per carry, 28th in rushing yardage per game and 23rd in percentage of carries that moved the sticks.
Those statistics don't reveal the process, but they are the results. And none of those rankings can be pinned on one running back or one blocker.
"Right now, we need a lot of work in it," said running back Montee Ball. "It starts up front, it starts with the tight ends, and especially with the running backs too. Collectively, we all need to sit down and really focus on it. And we will."
Ball's fumble on the first offensive play deflated the Broncos, although the defense's subsequent red-zone stop minimized the damage and prevent Seattle from building momentum. The offense found its footing with a 75-yard drive one series later, but the ground game never lurched out of second gear.
A major reason was a lack of space to operate. Denver's ballcarriers were hit in the backfield on 11 of 19 carries in Seattle (not including the first-half-ending kneeldown). One of those plays came when tight end Virgil Green was in the backfield next to quarterback Peyton Manning and was handed the football with third down and nine yards to go.
"Those were things that -- without giving away too much -- were communication problems I was talking about. One of them was we ran a trap with our tight end," said Head Coach John Fox. "We probably didn't practice it a lot."
During a stretch that went from the end of the first quarter through the second, Broncos runners were hit behind the line of scrimmage on seven consecutive running plays. Ball, C.J. Anderson and Green managed 12 yards after contact on those plays, but relative to the line of scrimmage, their combined output on those seven runs was minus-4 yards.
Green left with a concussion after his run and did not return. His departure followed the third of that seven-rush streak of contact behind the line of scrimmage.
"We changed a little bit once Virgil went out," said quarterback Peyton Manning.
"Once he went out we couldn't do some of the things we wanted to do formationally, and we became a little bit one-dimensional because of his injury and because of the score. And that's not what you want to do against [Seattle]. You want to be balanced and get different personnel groupings."
The Broncos used more three-wide receiver formations the rest of the game. After playing eight of the first 18 offensive snaps, wide receiver Wes Welker played 39 of the last 52. But as the formation emphasis changed, the ground results did not. Five of nine runs before Green's injury saw contact with the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage; after he left, it was six of 10. Denver averaged 2.1 yards per carry before Green's injury and 1.8 after that.
For the entire game, Denver's ball carriers had nearly as much yardage after contact (28) as overall (37). Ball was hit in the backfield on half of his 14 carries. When he made it to the line of scrimmage unscathed, he averaged 6.0 yards per carry, gaining 42 yards on seven rushes. When he was met before reaching the line of scrimmage, he lost four yards on seven attempts.
Seattle caused more problems than the Colts and Chiefs did in bursting through blockers, but that was an issue against those two defenses, as well. Broncos running backs were met in the backfield on 14 of 45 attempts in those two games: 12 of 27 in Week 1 and two of 18 in Week 2.
Ball has had it the worst, having been met in the backfield on 20 of his 49 carries this year. His average of 3.4 yards per carry is not what he had hoped, but he has averaged 2.08 yards per carry after contact. (ProFootballFocus.com is more generous than I am in my film study, crediting Ball with 2.3 yards after contact per rush.)
According to ProFootballFocus.com, just two of 15 running backs with more than 40 attempts have a higher percentage of their yards coming after contact than Ball. There's nothing wrong with that -- if the contact comes as Ball approaches the second level. But on 20 carries this year and seven in Seattle, that was not the case.
Defenders have poured into the backfield from all angles: outside the tackles, inside against the guards, and through the A-gap. If the Broncos can't find a way to prevent this, their ground game will continue to struggle, and effective offensive balance will remain an elusive goal.