The Broncos' longest run in three years came from an undrafted rookie who is listed on the fourth line of the depth chart the team distributes to media.
The success of Juwan Thompson, who Sunday became the fourth Bronco to lead the team in rushing for a single game this season, is a collaborative effort: player personnel, day-to-day coaching and the blockers up front all play a part. But his 47-yard third-quarter sprint was also about himself, and abilities in the open field that belie what you might expect from a stout, powerful 5-foot-11, 225-pound back.
"You have to give it up to 4-0 (Thompson)," said fellow running back C.J. Anderson. "He just sits there and he's been great all year. when he gets his opportunity, he always makes the best of it."
Thompson's sprint came from a three-wide receiver formation that included Paul Cornick as the sixth offensive lineman.
The man-on-man blocking from Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin to seal the outside and Will Montgomery to keep rookie Stefan Charles at bay is crucial to the play. But Manny Ramirez made the block that helped kick-start the sprint.
Ramirez bounces off Charles and notices linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has the play read and begins watching Thompson as he picks his lane. With a quick turn, he delivers a jarring block to Spikes, and then tosses him aside.
All the while, Thompson sees the lane between Clady/Franklin and Montgomery vanish, but notices that Demaryius Thomas has cornerback Stephon Gilmore engaged, and knocks him off balance. The entire left flank is open, and Thompson easily has the first down.
There's one free man at this point: Bills safety Aaron Williams. But as Thompson sees him advancing toward the 35-yard-line -- six yards past the line of scrimmage -- he makes the move that turns the solid gain into a gamebreaker, making a smooth, seamless cut back inside. Williams, who has not set himself properly, slides past, and Thompson thunders 42 more yards.
Thompson's was also the product of the Broncos' persistence on the ground. Buffalo's defensive line was as problematic as billed, and limited the Broncos to one yard or less on 11 of their 27 non-kneeldown rush plays, including five of 14 carries in the first half.
The Broncos' 4.0-yards-per-carry average in the first 30 minutes was bolstered by Emmanuel Sanders' 13-yard end-around; running backs Thompson, C.J. Anderson and Jeremy Stewart averaged 3.31 yards per carry in the first half, close in line with the Broncos' median rush of the day: 3 yards.
But while the Broncos' yardage per carry was less than it was against the Dolphins and Chiefs, the ground game was at its most efficient point in another key metric: first-down rate. Denver moved the sticks once every 2.9 carries, a figure bolstered by Anderson scoring two of his three touchdowns in goal-to-go situations.
The Broncos' season-long average is one first down every 4.46 carries, and even in the running game's breakthrough performances in the previous two weeks, their first-down rate was one every 3.5 carries and one every 5, respectively. Against Buffalo, the Broncos were 4-of-4 in converting third downs of 5 yards or less via the run, including Thompson's 47-yard play.
Two of those short-yardage conversions gained one and two yards, but despite the lack of distance, they were successful, and the Broncos' ability to get tough yards further enhances the viability of their running game.
But between Thompson and Anderson, the Broncos have the threat of the spectacular, and that gives them the patience to remain persistent, and know that in time, the big runs will come.
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