ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The highlights were apparent.
Javonte Williams carried a defender on his back and broke a 31-yard run. Melvin Gordon III picked up gains of seven, eight and 14 yards on the Broncos' first three drives.
The Broncos seemed to find early success in the run game against the Ravens, as Denver averaged 8.1 yards per carry in the first quarter as the team rushed nine times for 73 yards.
The struggles, though, were also evident to Head Coach Vic Fangio — and that early success, which helped push Denver to a 7-0 lead, could not be sustained throughout the rest of the game.
"It got bottled up there pretty good as the game wore on," Fangio said Sunday.
After the end of the first quarter, the Broncos ran the ball just eight times for 33 yards. As Fangio explained Monday, the Broncos' lack of plays after the first frame contributed to the pass-heavy offense. Through the final three quarters, the Broncos ran eight times and dropped back to pass on 33 occasions.
"Part of that is when you're going three-and-out, you don't have many plays," Fangio said. "It's hard to get anything going when you're going three-and-out as much as we did, or one first down and out. You just don't have plays, and it just skews everything."
And when the Broncos did have first downs, it's not hard to understand why the team was more comfortable throwing the football. During their 15 plays on first down in the first half, the Broncos ran the ball seven times and dropped back to pass on eight occasions. The Broncos averaged 7.43 yards per carry, but that number drops to 3.5 yards per carry with Williams' outlier of a run removed.
When Teddy Bridgewater dropped back to pass, he completed 4-of-7 passes for 56 yards, which was good for 14 yards per completion and eight yards per attempt. Bridgewater also scrambled once for two yards, but he drew a 15-yard penalty on the play.
That first-down success throwing the football helps explain Denver's decision to rely on its passing attack.
Fangio also noted that the team's 8.1 first-quarter yard-per-carry average was not an accurate indicator of the run game's performance.
"Statistically, it wasn't [very good]," Fangio said. "You're just looking at yards per carry — which [is boosted] when you throw in a 31-yarder, and then we had two other good runs there by Melvin. But by and large they were winning the running downs. When you look at yards per carry, that's probably the worst thing to look at."
Some of the team's few run plays after the first quarter were successful — Gordon started off the third quarter with a six-yard run and Williams had a 10-yard run early in the next possession — but there certainly were others that helped stall drives. In the second quarter, trailing 14-7, the Broncos faced a second-and-7 from the 50-yard line. The Broncos ran the ball on the ensuing snap, but the Ravens blew up the play and brought Williams down for a three-yard loss. Denver could not convert on the third-and-10 and had to punt.
In all, Denver had just two runs longer than five yards from the end of the first quarter until the waning seconds of the game.
Fangio did note that he was impressed with Williams' first-quarter run that set up Denver's lone touchdown of the afternoon. Williams bounced off several tacklers and then carried cornerback Marlon Humphrey on his back for a big gain.
"It was tremendous, but that's why we traded up to get him in the second round," Fangio said. "We knew if we waited, he wouldn't have been there, and he's proven us right. He's a really good back and we've been very pleased with his play."
As the Broncos move ahead toward Week 5 — still without wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler — Fangio knows finding a more even approach will be critical.
"It's important," Fangio said Sunday. "Any time you can have balance, you're a better offensive football team."
Drew Lock, who entered the game after halftime and handed the ball off just four times, agreed with Fangio's assessment.
"You know, [the] run game in the NFL is No. 1," Lock said Sunday. "It's undefeated. You got a good run game, you can do a lot of things. So being able to feed Melvin, being able to feed Javonte, keep them in the game, keep them rolling, keep them warm, I think that will always help us out. Whenever you get into a game, especially like this one where both defenses are playing well … it's about controlling the ball, staying on the field, converting third downs."
Tight end Noah Fant also believes that an increased commitment to the run should help against the Steelers and beyond.
"I think we just have to keep on it," Fant said Monday. "Sometimes those big plays don't bust all the time. You just have to keep on it and keep pushing forward with those. Sometimes you're only going to get three yards on each play, but you just have to keep grinding it. That's what I expect us to fully do. I think we have a good running game, and we can make a lot of yards in that area. [We] just have to keep doing it."
PICKING IT UP
The Broncos' defense allowed a pair of touchdown drives, including one that ended with a 49-yard strike from Lamar Jackson to Marquise Brown, but the defense otherwise held up relatively well.
Denver forced three consecutive punts to start the game, and after the Brown touchdown that put the Ravens up 14-7, the defense largely settled in.
After a 42-yard punt return gave the Ravens the ball at Denver's 26-yard line with 31 seconds to play, the Broncos' defense held strong and forced a field goal before halftime. Then, to start the second half, Denver forced punts on three of the first four drives of the half. On the lone scoring drive, Denver held Baltimore to a field goal.
Throughout the entire third quarter, the Broncos trailed by just 10 points, and they never fell behind by more than two scores. The defensive performance wasn't perfect, but Denver still managed to hold Baltimore to 1-of-3 in the red zone and to 7-of-17 on third down.
ADDRESSING THE END-OF-GAME SCENARIO
A day after the Ravens chose to run the ball with three seconds remaining rather than take a knee, Fangio addressed Baltimore's decision to forego the NFL's common practice.
"Yeah, I thought it was kind of [expletive], but I expected it from them," Fangio said. "Thirty seven years in pro ball, I've never seen anything like that, but it was to be expected and we expected it."
Fangio said he knows "how they operate" and that "player safety is secondary."
Fangio added that his displeasure with the decision stemmed from both the risk of injury and the lack of sportsmanship.
The Ravens gained five yards on the play, which pushed them over 100 yards on the afternoon. With the rush, they tied an NFL record for the most consecutive games with 100 rushing yards.
"That was one hundred percent my call," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Sunday. "That's one of those things that's meaningful. It's one of those things that I think as a head coach you have to be mindful of your team, your players and your coaches and what it means to them. It's a very tough record to accomplish and it's a long-term record. I'm not going to say it's more important than winning the game. As a head coach, I think you do that for your players, and you do that for your coaches, which is something that they'll have for the rest of our lives."