ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – ** Ronnie Hillman and Branden Oliver both have just two NFL starts. While neither back has experience on his side, both have risen to the occasion as the players that stand in front of them on the depth chart are sidelined with injuries.
Week 6, down by four to the Raiders with less than five minutes to go, Oliver spearheaded the Chargers' game-winning drive. The undrafted rookie out of Buffalo had four consecutive carries, good for 29 yards, which culminated in a diving touchdown score to put the Chargers on top for good.
While Hillman hasn't yet been needed for a heroic, game-saving play, the Broncos' third-year running back has taken the helm of a run game that struggled early on. During the Broncos' first four games of the season, the team was averaging 79.5 rushing yards per game, 29th in the NFL.
The past two games, both of Hillman's starts, the team is averaging 126.5 yards on the ground.
In his first game as an NFL starter, Hillman became the fourth back in Broncos history to rush for 100 yards in his first career start. On Sunday against the 49ers, he scored the third and fourth touchdowns of his career.
With Ryan Mathews and Donald Brown out for the Chargers and Montee Ball sidelined for the Broncos, these two backs have taken strides forward as they were pushed into the starting role.
Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio calls Oliver "underrated."
"I think he's a heck of a little player," Del Rio said. "So we're looking forward to the challenge."
Neither Hillman nor Oliver played during the first two games of the season and now both are leading their teams in rushing yards and touchdowns.
"You can see he's getting comfortable," Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase said of Hillman. "The more you do it, the better you're going to get at it. And I think the more reps we give him and keep him on the field and kind of do the plays to his advantage which we're trying to do—he'll keep having success. His biggest challenge is see how many—if we can get him to stay in there that whole series.
"Getting in that football shape is not easy. It's easy to come out here in practice and take three or four in a row, but we're on an 8-to-10-play drive, can you be that guy to stay in there and be in third down and make sure you're good on blitz pickups and then continue the drive on first and second down as well?"
Hillman appeared to be in football shape for both of his starts, as he provided that "burst" that so many of his teammates and coaches talk about. He played 75 percent of the offensive snaps against the Jets and 62 percent on Sunday.
Both backs are still learning and working on balancing their offenses with top quarterbacks handing them the ball. In fact, in Hillman's starts, the Broncos had equal pass attempts and running plays.
Head Coaches John Fox and Mike McCoy, reiterate the idea of "next-man-up" for their teams. These young backs stepping up is making their offenses two-dimensional.
"I think we've done a good job of guys learning the system, the newer players that have come in," McCoy said. "No one is going to feel sorry for you on Sunday or, for this week, Thursday night, so you go out with the mindset that there's a reason why these guys are here. We've got a lot of confidence in everybody on this team, and we've stressed that since day one. There's a reason why you're here, so go out and do what you've been doing all your life. Go cut it loose and play football."