DENVER- The Broncos' first offensive possession of the game made a statement: they were committed to establishing the run.
After weeks of trying to balance the offense and setbacks in St. Louis and New England, the Broncos were able to create their ideal offensive game plan in a pass-happy offense, threatening in the air and on the ground.
The Broncos ran the ball 10 of their first 13 plays – matching their total rushing attempts in St. Louis.
"That (running the ball) was certainly part of the game plan," Peyton Manning said after the game. "I thought the offensive line did a great job creating holes. I thought C.J. [Anderson] ran the ball well. Juwan [Thompson] had a couple of nice runs. So I thought that certainly shortened the time of possession in the first half. We only had it I think three times maybe in the first half. That's one of the factors. You have to convert third down and have to be efficient when you have the ball."
The Broncos set season-highs in rushing first downs (10), net rushing yards (201) and average gain per rush (5.7). The Broncos only ran for more than 200 yards once last season when Knowshon Moreno helped the team rack up 280 yards in New England.
Despite having a 13-time Pro Bowl quarterback, undrafted backs Anderson and Thompson (both with less than two years of NFL experience) were able to balance the Broncos' offense. Anderson totaled 167 rushing yards and one touchdown – setting a single-game rushing record for an undrafted Bronco. Thompson also had five carries, including a 21-yard burst on third-and-2 in the third quarter.
But the running backs' performance made a huge impact on third down, as the Broncos rarely faced third-and-long. They faced an average of 4.75 yards on third down and only one of their third downs was longer than six yards, a 3rd-and-20 conversion late in the first half. With a lack of third-and-longs, the Broncos converted on 9-of-13 third downs, giving them a 69 percent success rate – their highest of the season.
In fact, two of those third downs were not only converted, but resulted in two of Demaryius Thomas' three touchdowns.
Check out snapshots of the best action from the second half of Sunday's win over the Dolphins.
"We wanted to run the ball but then when you find yourself behind you better be able to throw the ball effectively as well," Manning said. "So I thought we were just really effective in both phases. We were productive, we protected the ball, which was key. I've turned it over twice three games in a row. I really wanted to change that and it was nice to be able to do that. It definitely keeps them from getting cheap field position and makes them go longer fields and so I thought that was critical and then the third-down production was key and I think we had third-and-short most of the time, as well. That was key."
Staying on the field on third down was vital in this game as the Broncos' offense was on the field for 34:17 of the matchup. Manning said the offensive line played well and handled the criticism pointed at them, not allowing the outside noise to affect them. He noted that the line's chemistry is improving. That and the return of Virgil Green were key in the offensive revival.
But that success didn't come immediately as the Broncos were down by 11 in the middle of the second quarter. In fact, in the first 15 minutes, the Broncos were only able to accumulate 44 total yards compared to the Dolphins' 104.
Despite getting down early and a promising drive in the second half resulting in a missed field goal, the Broncos stuck to their game plan. Manning attributed the Broncos' strides forward in this game to the team's calm demeanor. He said the team knew the second half would be a "dog fight" and the Broncos were ready to forge a comeback.
"I think that [remaining calm] really was the key," Manning said. "It wasn't the ideal scenario. You'd love to come down and get a touchdown on the first drive and then we had the three-and-out on the second drive and, like I said, I think we had the ball one other time. It just was a calm, communication on the sideline. We kind of thought the plan was working. Just needed to get the ball more, stay on the field and thought the touchdown drive at the end of the half, I thought was critical. We had a lot of momentum at halftime offensively."
But that momentum came to a screeching halt after the Broncos couldn't convert on third-and-1 and Brandon McManus missed a 33-yard field goal attempt with the ball hitting the right upright and falling wide. The Broncos' defense put up an impressive defensive stand, forcing a punt, but a fumbled punt gave the ball back to the Dolphins deep in Broncos territory. The Dolphins wasted little time as Ryan Tannehill hit Jarvis Landry for the score, increasing their lead to 11.
But one of the key plays of the game occurred on the Broncos' next drive as Manning overthrew Emmanuel Sanders on third-and-2. The Broncos didn't hesitate and stayed on the field for fourth down.
The Dolphins had single safety high and showed blitz with the Broncos' receivers facing single coverage. The offense got to the line early and Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase was able to call an audible from the sideline.
Gase's call was to put the ball in Anderson's hands, who took the ball 20 yards to the Miami 21. That play displayed the trust that Gase has in these young backs and Anderson certainly delivered, setting up Thomas' third touchdown of the game, which brought the Broncos within three.
"It was critical. We ran the ball to the left and it was a good thing that we changed it because we really didn't have a good play based on the look that they were showing early and we did make the change," Manning said of the play. "I think it was what Adam wanted to get to all along. He just took a little longer time to get to it so it looked like an audible and a change. I might not have told C.J. that Adam called it, I might've taken credit for it for C.J. but it was Adam that called it and I will be on the record for that."
It had been one month to the date since the Broncos last played in Sports Authority Field. The win was key in getting the Broncos back on track after finishing 1-2 on their three-game road stretch.
"We definitely earned a victory against a good football team today but we got to keep it going. We can't win one and have a fall off. Got to practice well this week and going on the road to Kansas City; tough place to play at home, at night. We'll enjoy it tonight and keep the edge starting tomorrow."