For those of you young enough not to remember the late 1990’s Denver Broncos rushing attack, you really don’t know what you missed. For those of us who do remember those days, running the ball in the NFL would never be the same. That attack didn’t just turn Terrell Davis into a league and Super Bowl MVP, but also brought on a run from 1995-2005—when Gary Kubiak was the offensive coordinator—that saw the Denver rushing offense amongst the league's top-five in nine of those seasons.
The success that Kubiak has had with his zone-blocking run scheme can’t be argued, as it’s been the coach's calling card. When you think Gary Kubiak, you think of the running game, more importantly, you think of a coach who's turned no-name runners into household names.
All this was missing in 2015, as Kubiak tried to marry his attack to future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning. Furthermore, with an offensive line transitioning into a new scheme and dealing with injuries, the run game never quite found its identity.
Thursday night might be the first in a fairly long time in which Broncos fans witnessed some of that old magic, seeing linemen move east to west and runners slice down those lanes, running hard north and south. The zone block is often characterized as a finesse scheme, which is true in some of the lateral motion you create at the line, but the goal is to pound the ball down a teams throat and especially the backs need to be able to take and deliver a beating.
[caption id="attachment_59103" align="aligncenter" width="460"] A classic example, with the fullback, of a zone-block run, watch the motion from the line.[/caption]
The Carolina Panthers defense was as great a test as they come for an NFL running game. They finished fourth in the league in rushing defense last season, holding opposing attacks to 88 yards a game. The Panthers front is ferocious, with two fo the best defensive tackle pairings in the NFL, lead by Kawann Short. The linebackers Denver faced might be even better, making the 148-yards gained on the ground by Denver that much more impressive.
Here where some of the key elements to Denver's running success this game.
The Broncos O-line
The Broncos offensive line was far from perfect Thursday night. At times they struggled to get push up front against a ferocious group. More importantly, they weren’t able to get the lateral movement up front that this run attack lives off of.
This was a tough test, and there was undoubtedly some mixed results. That said, some of the traits the line put on film were extremely encouraging. For starters, they played as a unit, they moved in unison and played sound assignment football. They also showed a nasty edge, being able to deliver on short third downs, imposing their will on a Carolina group that is among the best. There were times when the Broncos O-line was simply gashing the Panthers ‘D’ and opening up huge holes, a rare occurrence in 2015.
[caption id="attachment_59099" align="aligncenter" width="628"] Watch how the line seals off the right side.[/caption]
They also flashed some nice mobility, a staple of the zone block; there were moments when they got that east and west motion going and opened up holes for C.J. Anderson. The line also got out in space to efficiently block on a handful of screens.
The performance from the group was a big plus all around. Also worth noting, when rolling back the tape, Russell Okung had a clean game playing left tackle, health is the big concern with him, but he looked far from washed up in both run blocking and pass protection.
For the Broncos to establish a running game they first had to keep Carolina guessing, while also avoiding long third-downs. Kubiak unexpectedly began the game by passing the ball five consecutive times, preventing Carolina’s defense from crowding the box.
This variety of play calling continued even with the Broncos down ten points later on in the game. Denver ended up with a very even 26 passes and 29 runs, a balance that was crucial.
Return of the fullback
The importance of Andy Janovich in Thursday night’s game cannot be overstated. Forget the TD run he had for a second, Janovich’s presence as a blocker was huge, something this running game had been missing for a while now. Almost all of Denver’s big runs came with the fullback on the field, who seemed to always get a block on someone.
[caption id="attachment_59102" align="aligncenter" width="630"] Just watch Janovich get through the hole and stop Thomas Davis in his tracks.[/caption]
Janovich's presence allowed Anderson to get help blocking on the second level, having to beat only one defender to gain big yardage. This opened up major gains.
More importantly, Janovich was tasked with getting through the hole and taking on guys like Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, two very bad men. Janovich played a huge part in the Broncos ability to match the physicality of the Panthers defense.
He then had his big moment with the opening touchdown of the game, another wrinkle that the Broncos offense has missed for some time. The rookie ran a classic fullback dive that "Jano" took the distance.
C.J. Anderson had a splendid game; that was plain for all to see. His vision, in particular, was excellent, Anderson was seeing cutback lanes and was both patient and decisive in his approach. Anderson was the catalyst for an excellent running game performance, missing guys miss in the open field and showing off great lateral quickness on top of his vision.
The Broncos converted all of their short yardage (for the purpose of this, three yards or less) on third and fourth downs. They ran on four of those, though one of the runs was a Siemian scramble.
The fact the Denver's line and runners were able to impose themselves when the game was on the line, on fourth and inches and third and goal from the one-yard line speaks volumes to the cohesion of this unit and the determination on imposing their will this year in the run game.
Anderson and Janovich's running also played a huge part in this.
While the run game was far from perfect, for now, there were some truly promising plays we saw against the Panthers.
The Broncos attack still needs to improve in several areas and be a bit more consistent. They were unable to eat away at the clock and close the game out in the fourth quarter, as the defense and missed field goal had to save the day. Also, the stable of backs outside of Anderson left much to be desired, with rookie runner Devontae Booker having a deer in the headlights look and Kapri Bibbs being used sparingly. That’ll have to change.
Considering the opponent, and a remarkable 5.1 yard per run average, it’s hard to criticize the running game much. There were enough positives to build off of in this game to make one think that the best of the zone-blocking run game might just be back in the Mile High City.