DENVER —Juwan Thompson says he wouldn't want to play defense. And after watching the punishment he laid on would-be tacklers trying to put him on the grass in short-yardage run plays, and the looks of defenders trying to corral Ronnie Hillman, I don't blame him.
The Broncos' 35-21 win over the Chargers was just the latest example of a burgeoning run game maintaining a progressive path as the two combined for 162 total yards with two touchdowns.
Coming into Thursday night, control of the ground game was due to be a hard-fought battle likely to have implications on the outcome.
In last year's Thursday night game, the Chargers won by getting what they wanted to the tune of 177 rushing yards, which helped them hold on to the ball. And by keeping the ball in their possession for much of the game, they kept an incendiary Broncos offense from touching the ball enough to get back into the game. And on the other side, the Broncos got little success on the ground, with only 18 yards on 11 carries.
Now fast forward to this season, past the two teams' playoff matchup last postseason. In a battle between two rivals trying to establish an advantage in the race for the division, the run game would again be an important factor, both on offense and defense.
The Broncos' run offense came out on top Thursday night, as did the Broncos defense. Denver outgained San Diego 139 to 61 yards on the ground, though 23 of the Chargers' rushing yards came on the last play of the game at a time when the game had already been decided
With that total, the Broncos have run for an average of 121 yards in each of their last four games, which is a marked improvement over their 75.3 yard rushing average over the first three games.
"Over the last three weeks I think you've seen improvement in the run game," Head Coach John Fox said. "Regardless of who the backs are, I think it starts up front with your blocking element, whether it's tight ends or the O-line. Again, the running backs—it's a team effort, a group effort. We've just gotten better. It's something that we stress and work at very hard. The staff has done an excellent job and the players have responded."
In that same time in which the Broncos had to make a switch in their lineup to move Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson up a spot due to Montee Ball's injury, they've gotten comprehensive efforts across the board to improve their rushing offense. Over those past four weeks, they've increased their per-rush average from 3.3 to 4.6 yards.
"I think it is a combination of things," Peyton Manning said. "Ronnie has really played well. He has a burst; he catches the ball out of the backfield. I'm so disappointed I missed him on that one throw late and we had to punt. Getting him the ball in space when he had a chance for a big play. He has played pretty well. I do think our guys up front have played better for whatever reason the past few weeks and provided some opportunities. It's been a nice combination there. Ronnie, I think getting the reps—knowing he's the starting tailback, getting the reps in practice—I think any young player will tell you that makes a difference. It's hard if you're not getting all the reps. I've always felt that as a quarterback. He's taking advantage of his opportunity and he's played really well."
Hillman shouldered most of the carries for his second career 100-yard rushing game. His quick cutbacks in the trenches and outside them gave the Broncos a versatile weapon on the ground and through the air with 138 total yards, including a 37-yard scamper. A big part of that is the confidence the Broncos have put in their running game and helping Hillman get into a rhythm.
"It's just getting in the rhythm. Running backs need rhythm," Hillman said. "I'm starting to get in a rhythm and hopefully we can continue this to the next week, make it ongoing. Juwan, he gets going and C.J. gets going, just get this run game going a lot more than what it is now because, like I said, we could make improvements."
Though Hillman did just about everything—good inside and outside running, playing in the passing game, solid pass-blocking—except for getting into the end zone.
Instead, the Broncos turned to Juwan Thompson in the short yardage situations, where he busted through the line for two touchdowns.
For those wondering why Juwan Thompson got those carries, his run on third-and-1 to end the third quarter showed exactly why. Thompson plowed his way up the middle, knocking back a linebacker and defensive back for a first down.
"That's just my style of running: get downhill," Thompson said. "I just like to deliver the first blow because it's tough to regain yourself after someone gets you or catches you slipping. So I try to go ahead and deliver that first blow so that they know that I'm coming to play and when I do get in, that I'm coming downhill. It's just I'm trying to make you come tackle me. I'm trying to get that first down, new set of downs, or take it to the house if I can."
For him, too, confidence from the coaching staff is letting him get the carries he needs to excel, as Manning discussed after the game.
"I think it tells you the confidence that we have in him," Manning said. [Offensive Coordinator] Adam [Gase] and [running back] Coach [Eric] Studesville are more than happy to put him in there in critical situations. End of the game, trying to get a first down, around the goal line, had a couple of goal line plays to him. So that's a nice little addition to our offense. He's been great running the ball and he catches the ball well out of the backfield as well."
Thompson also saw the continued running game improvement as something much bigger than just their position. "It's just we're being very decisive and those guys up front there, they're doing a better job each week in getting everything done and blocking everything correctly and just communicating with each other. That's what football is," he said. "It's a bond over time. You're not going to be great the first game. So over time, everyone's going to get better and get well-equipped with everyone else so everyone else is on the same page."