ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** It was evident Sunday that the Broncos' talk about building a more effective ground game wasn't just offseason lip service: it will be a point of emphasis in games.
"The run game is a focus for us," said tight end Julius Thomas. "We have to run the ball efficiently, but if you're running the ball well on third-and-short, it's going to extend drives so we'll take that. But we'll keep working."
Thomas noted that the ground game, like other aspects of the offense, is a "work in progress." But the Broncos are putting in the work at game time that helps them sharpen a tool that they will need in their drawer later.
In last year's season opener, just 31.8 percent of their plays (adjusted to not include kneeldowns) and 8.3 percent of their first downs came via the run. For the entire season, the Broncos ran on 38.3 percent of their plays and accounted for 24.6 percent of their first downs via the run.
Sunday, they ran 43.1 percent of the time, with eight of 24 first downs coming on the ground. The Broncos ran more often than that five times in the 2013 regular season, but only had one game in which a higher percentage of first downs were earned on runs.
Third-and-short was a bugaboo in 2013, when the Broncos converted 11 of 18 (61.1 percent) third-down runs of two or fewer yards. They improved to 6-of-8 (75 percent) in the postseason.
Sunday, they were perfect: three third-down runs in short yardage, three times the chains kept moving toward eventual scores. Seventeen of the Broncos' 31 points came on drives with one short-yardage conversion on the ground.
Montee Ball's touchdown run did not come on a third-and-short situation, but was an example of the power that the second-year running back brings to the position.
"His touchdown play was awesome," said quarterback Peyton Manning. "The Colts really had a good defensive play -- almost a tackle for a loss --and he made a couple of guys (Bjoern Werner and Zach Kerr) miss and made it enough to get into the end zone."
Added Ball: "It's just a mentality that we all have to get in the red zone. You want to finish off with a touchdown because that sends a message to the team."
C.J. Anderson's explosive burst also helped; he averaged 6.8 yards on his four carries and displayed the quickness he's demonstrated in training camp and the preseason.
But on first downs, the Broncos struggled, especially late. After averaging 4.8 yards per first-down run in the second quarter -- when they scored 21 points -- the Broncos averaged just 2.0 yards per carry on first down in the second half.
"We put that on ourselves," said Ball. "We really want to focus on the small details, including myself. I always say there are some holes out there that I missed, some holes I didn't hit fast enough."
But there's time to get it right, and with an offensive line that should improve after its first regular-season game together, there's reason to believe the Broncos will be more efficient. And then there's Ball, whose growth has been well-documented leading into his first NFL start. His upside is significant, as well.
"I just kind of liked the look in his eye the other night in his first start as a starting running back for the Broncos," said Manning.