DENVER — In one fell "sweep," if you will, the Broncos broke through their ground-game frustrations as Ronnie Hillman turned the corner near the left sideline, blowing past the Vikings' purple pursuers for a 72-yard score.
It was just the spark the offense needed after weeks of endeavoring to find balance between the rush and the pass.
The Broncos held off the Vikings as the defense once again forced a turnover to end the game.
"We had to get the run game sparked this week. We've had three bad weeks of running the ball and tonight we got it started," Hillman said. "You always need something to spark the running game, and this week it was just me and C.J. got tired of [people] telling us we can't run the ball and it was just our time."
A week earlier, the Broncos left Detroit with a win, but without the production to silence critics. They mustered just 41 yards on the ground, 20 yards fewer than the prior week's production.
The emphasis on the run did not wane in the face of its struggles, nor with Ty Sambrailo's shoulder injury demanding an adjustment on the edges of the offensive line. Ryan Harris, normally the starting right tackle, moved to the opposite side while second-year tackle Michael Schofield made his first NFL start at right tackle.
"I feel like we really responded," left tackle Ryan Harris said. "We accepted the challenge [and] we got running the ball today. We ran the ball in key situations [and] we had a rushing touchdown of over 50 yards. So any time you do those things, it's great to be able to do those and against a very good team like Minnesota, we feel very good."
And it was on that second-quarter run that their weeks of work showed how much the offense has progressed. The blocks were set, defenders sealed off and with a burst of speed and vision of which gap to take, Hillman shed Minnesota's last lines of defense and some of criticism that has dogged him and the rest of the offense.
"It's great to get that monkey off our back. We've been fielding a lot of tough questions and we're just happy to come together as a unit and show what we can do," Harris said.
The performance of the line was made even more impressive by the fact that this particular lineup didn't practice together until Friday. Right guard Louis Vasquez missed Wednesday's practice and left guard Evan Mathis missed Thursday's.
"I had complete faith in Ryan," Mathis said. "Ryan's a savvy vet. He's a good communicator, he knows what he's doing and there wasn't much I had to get used to. We talked about a lot of situations we would be in and he held his own."
Hillman's 72-yard run was exactly half of the rushing game's production, but the Vikings' defense had to be more honest in defending the run to prevent another possibly gashing gain. Late in the fourth quarter on the drive that led to a game-winning field goal, the Broncos went back to the run and found more success, with C.J. Anderson gaining 13 yards and a first down.
"We've known how capable we are and to be able to execute finally is just a big relief," Harris said. "I feel like the Vikings, clearly their defense said 'Hey, they can't run, they can't run,' and if you break a big run like that, they've got to kind of change what they're doing and it opens things up for us, and just to set it up down the line, too, it's great to get a couple runs in and get some big chunks."
Ultimately with the offense's most balanced game to date, they still envision further evolution.
"It's everything's evolving, whether it be formations, whether it be the way were fitting our blocks, whether it be how the running backs are finding lanes," Mathis said. "We're working to evolve all that.
"There's been forward progress, and I think that's the mindset of this coaching staff and this team, to continue to evolve and improve and we're going to see improvements when we go back and watch this tape, but we're still going to see things we can go back and learn from and correct and build on."