The Denver Broncos' point of emphasis on offense this offseason has been the running game. Saturday night against the Buffalo Bills, Head Coach John Fox and Co. saw the Broncos' top two rushers, expected to carry the load in 2011, pick up 34 yards on 11 carries. Stopping the run has been Fox’s point of emphasis on defense. However, right now, the defensive line has been struggling to bottle up opposing offenses’ running backs.
The Broncos backfield is going the wrong direction (on both sides of the ball).
Not only did the Broncos top two rushers, Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee, average only 3.1 yards rushing, but they faced the Buffalo Bills, the only team in the NFL last season, behind the Broncos’ beleaguered defense in opposing rushing yards allowed per game.
The backups, Brandon Minor, 6 rushes for 24 yards, Lance Ball, 7 rushes for 20 yards, Jeremiah Johnson, 5 rushes for 16 yards, didn’t fare too much better.
Fox wants to return the Broncos to balance in the run and pass games in 2011, however, he has his work cut out for him as although the Broncos did rush the ball 32 times compared to 31 pass attempts, the offense only rushed as a whole for 101 yards.
The Broncos' struggles stopping the run continued as they surrendered 126 yards on 24 attempts for an average of 5.3 yards/attempt by the Buffalo Bills.
What aspect of the game will be the most important for the Denver Broncos in 2011?
The key to the running game is the point of attack: the offensive line.
There is only one offensive lineman among the bunch for Broncos with more than five years experience. Right tackle Orlando Franklin is a rookie. Center J.D. Walton is in his second season with the Broncos. Left guard Zane Beadles is also in his second season. Pro-Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady is a pass blocking specialist for the Broncos and is in his third season. Right guard is in his seventh season in the NFL.
The offensive line needs to work on opening holes and pushing the defenders off the line. That opens up running lanes for the speedy Moreno to burst through to the second level.
The second key element in the running game is once through the first level, make a defender miss at the next level. The two longest runs of the night were an 11-yard run by Minor and a 9-yard run by Moreno. The rushers are not making the linebackers and the cornerbacks miss. They aren’t shaking tackles and opening up huge gains.
Moreno has yet to break the 1,000-yard mark in his two seasons in Denver. McGahee is pushing 30-years old and has spent the majority of his career as a red zone and short yardage specialist. He has not been known for breaking off large gains throughout his NFL career.
The Broncos hope that history will not repeat itself again in 2011, but with the baffling additions by Fox, it doesn't appear like a huge run game will materialize for the Broncos at this rate.
In contrast, all of the top Bills’ backs had huge gains over 14 yards apiece. C.J. Spiller had a long of 14 yards in one rush and Fred Jackson had a rush for more than 20 yards. This is worrisome for a defense that ranked 31st against the rush last season with a new head coach preaching that he will improve the run defense in 2011.
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos believed that bringing in the behemoth nose tackle, Ty Warren would close the gaping holes that filled the defensive line last season, but a partial tear of his triceps dashed those hopes, until at the earliest week 15 or 16 of the season. Marcus Thomas also went down with a pectoral muscle injury, another key piece to the Broncos defensive line re-build, and he is out for the remainder of the preseason.
With those key absences in the defense, the Broncos’ holes have returned; Fox will need to work his magic he has demonstrated with his defenses of yesteryear to bring the backups up to speed as soon as possible.
Although the main focus for the fans and media has been the quarterback controversy, the success of the Broncos in 2011 and beyond depends on running the football, and limiting the opposing offenses' rushing yards. If you can do both of those, you can control the clock, the ball, and the game. As evidenced by last season, when you cannot run the ball or stop the run, the game turns in to a shootout on offense, and none of the Broncos' quarterbacks will win that matchup this season.