ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Royce is rollin'.
That's what the stats say about rookie running back Royce Freeman — and they aren't lying.
Through four weeks, Freeman has matched Giants running back and second-overall pick Saquon Barkley for the most rushing touchdowns (3) among rookies. Freeman is just the third Broncos rookie running back to record that many rushing touchdowns through four games, joining Terrell Davis and Jon Keyworth. He may well have a chance to surpass both of their rookie season totals — seven and 10 respectively — as he continues his march toward more snaps.
Freeman played just 16 snaps of the Broncos' 60 offensive snaps on Monday night against Kansas City, but his production led Head Coach Vance Joseph to pledge that Freeman would become more involved.
"Royce, the last two weeks, has hit his stride," Joseph said Tuesday. "He is playing at a high level. And to watch him last night, obviously we blocked it up front, but a couple times, he turned nothing into something. That's Royce. That's what he was in college. So I'm looking forward to getting him more touches. I think he played about 16, 17 plays last night. He needs more opportunities, because he is playing good football."
Freeman carried the ball eight times for 67 yards and a touchdown on Monday, but five of those carries came in the first half — and Freeman didn't touch the ball after the Broncos took a 10-point lead with 12:52 to play in the fourth quarter.
When he was given the ball, Freeman showed why the Broncos selected him with a third-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Four of the rookie's eight carries went for at least 10 yards. That includes a second-quarter play where it appeared Freeman would be stopped for a loss. Instead, he broke through several arm tackles for a 14-yard touchdown.
Joseph may now give Freeman the opportunity to break even more tackles — and score even more touchdowns.
A LAST GASP
Trailing by four points and facing a fourth-and-10 with 16 seconds remaining, the Broncos called a play that almost got them far more yards.
Wide receiver Courtland Sutton ran a 10-yard hitch, and Case Keenum hit him with the pass as Sutton broke back toward the ball. Sanders, who ran a crossing route, cut underneath Sutton and was ready to catch a lateral. Running back Devontae Booker came out of the backfield to block Chiefs DB Armani Watts, and Sanders appeared to have an open lane to the sideline.
But football is a game of inches — and the Broncos didn't get the ones they needed. Sutton was hit as he tried to pitch the ball, and it was outside of Sanders' grasp. The ball hit the ground, and the pass was ruled incomplete after a review.
Asked about the call on Tuesday, Joseph explained why the Broncos didn't convert and why he liked Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave's call.
"It's a good play call because of the clock and obviously because of the play itself," Joseph said Tuesday. "It was a good play call by Billy, and that corner made a nice play. Most corners in that deal will back off, because a field goal won't beat you, so [if] you tackle the ball in the grass, you're all good. Most corners would be a little bit softer, but the kid made a play. If he's soft there, we've got a blocker for the corner, we're going to toss the ball to Emmanuel and see what happens. That was a good play call.
"That play, we practice all the time because of those situations. We didn't have any more timeouts, so time's always an issue when you don't have a timeout. I liked the play call."
After offensive tackle Garett Bolles struggled in Week 3 against Baltimore, the Broncos made an adjustment to help the second-year player adapt during games. Offensive Line-Tackles Coach Chris Strausser moved from the coaches' box to the sideline for Monday's game, and Musgrave took Strausser's seat up in the booth.
Joseph said Tuesday he hoped the move would help Bolles adjust to in-game struggles, and the move appeared to pay dividends against Kansas City.
After allowing a sack and then drawing a holding penalty on back-to-back plays in the second quarter, Bolles rebounded.
"I think having Coach Chris Strausser on the sideline has helped Garett come back and play [his] technique." Joseph said. "That's a tough out, with those two rushers [Justin Houston and Dee Ford]. He had a couple bad plays early, but he settled in and played very solid for us the rest of the night. I think having Coach Strausser on the sideline with Garett, just talking through technique, helped him last night [to] play better."
Joseph said Tuesday he could foresee the Broncos continuing with the same arrangement.
"It was [a] good operation last night," Joseph said. "I felt comfortable with it, and obviously it helped Garett come out of those two bad plays early on."
The Broncos had just a single injury concern after Monday night's game, as the team lost Jared Veldheer to a knee injury. Joseph said Tuesday that Veldheer is still being evaluated.
"We should know more today or tomorrow," Joseph said. "I'll keep you guys informed on that issue."