They might not be scoring as much as you’d like, but there’s no denying the Denver Broncos offense has been different in just the first four weeks of the 2017 season.

A big part of that has been Denver’s running game which is currently third in the NFL, averaging 143 rushing yards per game. The Orange & Blue have gone over the century mark on the ground in every game thus far, and it’s all happening in a variety of ways. More impressive, it’s occurring with an offensive line that features three new starters, in a new offensive scheme that’s paying off in a big way. Something that we featured in offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s first game against the Chargers with endless personnel variations.

We went back to see what the Broncos did to impose themselves in the run game over the Oakland Raiders a week ago in their 16-10 win. To try to understand what’s working so well this season.

A taste of their own medicine

I hate to harken back to this but, back in 2016, the Raiders stomped the Broncos vaunted defense on the ground. This past week it was time for Denver to get their revenge. The Broncos did just that, using a sixth offensive lineman, a key to Oakland’s 2016 win.

Denver did this in six different instances, using tackle Donald Stephenson as an “eligible receiver,” lined up to the right of right tackle Menelik Watson. Every time Denver was in these jumbo packages they ran the ball and had plenty of success.

In all these jumbo packages, there were also either two tight ends or a TE and a fullback, giving Denver eight players on the field who were competent blockers.  In using this package, the Broncos had 62 yards on the ground, including the biggest run of the game; C.J. Anderson’s 40-yard run that you’ll see below.

This run is a perfect example of how effective the running game can be, and how good some underrated blockers are performing. Watson, with Virgil Green, made this play, as Green makes a crucial block coming in motion inside to clear Anderson’s initial lane. Watson, all the while, takes out the inside linebacker opening up a big hole for C.J. at the second level.

Stephenson is also crucial here, as he completely takes out Khalil Mack while Jeff Heuerman—an underrated blocker in his own right—does a great job here, too.

While there’ve been lots of issues for the line in pass protection, the run blocking has been much better. Even more so in these jumbo packages, where Denver is bullying teams in a manner that we haven’t seen for a while.

Even when you take out the one 40-yard run, the Broncos still averaged 4.4 yards per rush on the other five plays out of the six-man o-line groupings.

It might be a tell and could be a great way to set up play action in the future, but while it’s not exotic, this formation’s working. Stephenson and the two tight ends also give Watson more help in pass protection as the Broncos do pass out of two tight end formations a bunch.

In general, the attitude from the ground game is different, and it’s showing on short yard downs. Denver converted all second and third downs of three yards or less against Oakland and has looked much better in short yardage.

Don’t look now, but Denver’s offense is trying to bullying opponents.

Running out of the gun

While the Broncos are imposing themselves physically on teams with their jumbo packages, essentially saying, “we’re going to run it down your throat, try to stop us,” another wrinkle that’s been fairly effective is how well the team has run the ball out of the shotgun.

In last Sunday’s game, the Broncos had 40 snaps with Trevor Siemian in the gun and 12 of those times they ran the ball. While there weren’t any big runs, without anything big to brag about, the rushing attack still averaged 4.4 yards per carry out of the gun.

Jamaal Charles had three of his five runs out of the shotgun and was explosive, showing himself to be a real weapon out of the formation. While Devontae Booker also had two of his three runs out of the shotgun go for nine yards.

Part of this has been talked about by head coach Vance Joseph who’s said the Broncos offense just isn’t getting many single-high safety looks.

The play below is a perfect example of this, and Denver’s running game is taking advantage.

As you can see, right guard Ronald Leary was crucial getting out on the move, where he was able to get to the second level and take the inside linebacker out of the play. You can also see how the entire line is getting great push here, something we’re seeing much more of than a year ago. In this play, the left side of the line dominates, as tackle Garett Bolles and guard Max Garcia blocked their defenders five yards downfield.

The Broncos ability to keep you honest and run with consistency out of both heavy and three-wide formations has been crucial. That balance will allow for more room to open up for Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, while also keeping pass rushing defenders at bay from the Broncos biggest liability, their pass protection.

Running back production

The running game’s success hasn’t just been scheme and blocking as the running back tandem of Anderson and Charles has been very successful thus far.

Anderson is currently fourth in the league in rushing yards, averaging 82.5 per game, his highest in a season thus far in his career. On film, it’s easy to see that he has an extra step this year. He’s more powerful, and he’s making more people miss once he gets to the second level. His ability to make later cuts has been outstanding.

Anderson has also been a valuable asset as a blocker and receiver, two essential qualities that make him a true three-down back. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason to doubt C.J.’s ability to maintain this performance for a whole year.

Charles has only carried the ball 33 times so far this season, an average of only eight per game, but he’s already seventh in the NFL in yards per carry at 5.3. It’s clear that Charles’ vision and balance have been there since the preseason but we’re now seeing that burst. Charles is also looking deadly quick on his lateral cuts and is just impossible to bring down on a first tackle attempt.

He’s been ever so close to making one last tackle miss and breaking off a big run but hasn’t quite got it yet. Jamaal is actually the only runner in the top 10 leaders in yards per carry to not have a run over 20 yards this season; all other runners have at least one run of 35 yards or more. It sure feels like that big run is just around the corner.

As Charles is clearly being used on a bit of a pitch count, Devontae Booker is now back and could add yet another dimension to this unit with his young legs, versatility, and power.

With all these pieces in place, the running game has gelled and so far has been the true strength of this offense. Their ability to keep it up into November and December might just be the difference between Denver being a contender this year or a pretender. The initial signs are encouraging, particularly with the versatility of scheme with which the Broncos are having success on the ground. With a deep stable of backs on the team, there’s also reason to believe that this success can be maintained for the long haul.

Only time will tell, but seeing the Broncos offense impose their will on teams is a welcome change, there’s no denying that.

Born in Boulder and raised in Milan, Italy like Danilo Gallinari. Also like Gallo, I moved to the States at 18; unlike Gallo, I wasn’t drafted by the Knicks but came to attend Western State Colorado University (go Mountaineers!). I graduated in 2009 with a major in Communications and Media and two minors in Journalism and Philosophy.

After working in the linguistic field for a few years and listening to sports radio ALL DAY at work, I decided to do it myself and it changed my life around. (Now, I can say I couldn’t be happier and am proudly married to the love of my life Kate.) I moved back to Gunnison and started volunteering for the NPR affiliate up in Crested Butte, while also starting to contribute on an NFL podcast for playitusa.com. A 10 minute bit on one podcast turned into being a regular, year-round on three different podcasts on the NFL, College Football, and the NFL Draft. I’ve since started writing on trueblueblog.net and playitusa.com as well as writing in depth Draft analysis for footballnation.it in the past 3 years. I love the Draft and knowing the stars of the future before everyone else. My sports mount Rushmore is Terrell Davis, Patrick Roy, Italian soccer star Roberto Baggio, and John Elway, deal with it! Hit me up at @andresimone to talk NFL, NCAA football, NFL Draft, CSU football, Nuggets or anything else Colorado or Italy sports related.

  • Do you see De’Angelo Henderson playing a role or was he a “just in case” back, in case Jamaal Charles didn’t have his speed and quickness back?

    It’s good to read something positive about the Denver offense!

  • There’s no doubt that the key reasons are as you stated: 1) much better O-line play in the run, 2) CJ is healthy and more fit and Charles is a big upgrade at the change-of-pace back and 3) more usage of the shotgun and the hurry up.

    This was my big peeve with Kubiak. He felt that you couldn’t run out of the shotgun. But Peyton proved you could before Kubiak got there. Kubiak was stubborn and could never see players for their natural abilities. If he’d stuck with what was working, Peyton would have been running the hurry up in the gun nearly every play and possibly wouldn’t have hurt his foot. More scoring would have meant less pressure on the defense and an even more impressive run to the playoffs and the SB win in 2015.

    • I just don’t think we had the O-line to make the offense work under Kubiak’s zone scheme. We did run the ball well before. And I’m a fan of the fast break, attacking type of offense. Different philosophies. I’m not sure it was a matter of not seeing players for their nature abilities, though. Obviously other teams still use the West Coast offense as a bass scheme and they have success with it. So I tend to think the Broncos just didn’t have all the pieces last year.

      • We never ran the ball well enough to abandon Peyton Manning’s hurry up, pass-first offense. This was a case of a stubborn head coach who insisted on jamming a square peg into a round hole. My guess was always that Manning intimidated Kubiak with his football intellect and he would be damned before he’d let his QB, any QB, run the game from the field. The case study that demonstrates a head coach who adapted to the player rather than forcing the player to adapt to him was Don Shula. Shula was a run-first, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offensive head coach. Yet he adapted to Dan Marino and they put up Star Wars numbers together. Kubiak was no Don Shula.

        We’ll never know the whole story unless Manning ever writes his memoirs and he is completely truthful. It’s possible, I suppose, that he had the foot problem from the beginning of the season and Kubiak had no choice but to go run-first because Manning couldn’t throw with the bad foot. I doubt it. I still think that leaving the shotgun and putting Manning under center was the cause of the foot trouble in the first place.

        • I was listening to Kubiak and what he said about how he and Manning were working together. And I heard what Manning was saying about loving the challenge and being refreshed by it. I think that Kubiak-was-stubborn narrative is nonsense. How ridiculous to think the QB who’s entire NFL playing life was in John Elway’s shadow would be intimidated by another great quarterback. He was so intimidated by Elway that he became his coach! So surely Manning was a threat to him. That narrative doesn’t fit the facts.

          • Yeah, keep telling yourself that Rebecca. That was all lovey-dovey “NFL-speak”. I think that Manning (and Kubiak) were very good at keeping a pleasant public image. And I truly believe they got along fine just like you said. Manning was always a loyal and obedient player. My guess is that he took it well and viewed his time with Kubiak as his turn in NFL purgatory after all the years doing his thing and winning all those games on offense.

            The reality is that Kubiak, in a matter of days, single-handedly dismantled the most prolific and productive offense in NFL history. He took back control of the game from Manning as the quasi-offensive coordinator and made him into his puppet on the field. The shotgun was gone, the hurry up was gone, calling the plays at the line was mostly gone, the Star Wars, pressing, pass-first offense was gone. That was Manning’s game and Kubiak shelled it. Think back to the times when the Broncos were behind with almost no time left and they went back to the Manning offense. Before you know it, they’ve scored two TDs and they’re back in the game.

            Any rational coach would come in and look at what he had to work with and decide to keep what worked and make changes where needed. There was nothing wrong with the Manning offense. In fact it was history making. So what does he do? He converts the Broncos into the Woody Hayes’ 1970s, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. Burn as much clock as you can and score the fewest points needed to win. Let your defense win the game for you. That was totally irrational. He could have had both a great offense AND a great defense. He just couldn’t stand the fact that he’d have to turn the keys over to Manning to get it.

            BTW, Kubiak wasn’t Elway’s head coach, Shanahan was. It was Shanahan that wasn’t intimidated. Plus Kubiak was implementing Shanahan’s offense and it fit Elway’s skill set. And they had Terrell Davis. Imagine how Elway would have reacted if he had to play under Kubiak’s 2015-2016 offense.

            Until Manning, Kubiak had never coached a strong-willed QB as head coach. So what does he do when he finally coaches one? He castrates him.

          • Sorry, Roger, but when you win a Super Bowl you hardly would look at the experience as being in purgatory.

            Obviously Kubiak believed in his offense. He hardly wanted them to go “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust.” In truth he and Elway and Manning believed that taking some of the load off the QB would prolong Peyton’s career. I mean, yes, he was prolific when he arrived, but there’s no doubt he started having problems in 2014. More interceptions, fewer times when he could save the day. I think of what’s happening with Ben Rothlesburger right now. Might be time for his team not to lean so heavily on him. It happens even to the best of quarterbacks. And that’s what John Elway understood, having won SBs at the END of his career.

            You are misguided to think that Kubiak is strong willed, that he and Peyton and Elway weren’t in sync. Very, very misguided.

            And thank goodness they were. No way could Brock O have performed as well as he did if he was expected to step in and do what Peyton did. Why do you think Kubiak wanted Peyton to be the guy for the playoffs? He wasn’t running “his system.” Go look at the tape. How many snaps were in the pistol and shotgun vs under center? A good percentage, that’s for sure. Why? Because Kubiak was willing to tailor the offense to what his QB did best. He said it, Peyton said it, the work on the field showed it, but that ridiculous narrative refuses to die.

            Feel free to respond if you wish, but I don’t think I have any more to say on the subject. People will believe what people want to believe.

          • Have you actually reviewed his 2014 stats? Yes, he had more INTs but
            they were exactly his career average and his other statistics were very
            comparable to his best years — well above average. He still won 12 games, the AFC West
            and got the first round bye. That hardly seems like a decline. Fox pulled the same thing he did in the 2013 SB. He didn’t have his team prepared for the Playoffs and it cost him his job.

            I might agree with you if it wasn’t for those times when Manning was allowed to run the old hurry up because they got behind using the Woody Hayes “3 yards” system. Manning would call the plays from the shotgun, using his hand signals at the line of scrimmage and make passes to the wide outs like the old days. I’m sure DT and Emmanuel remembered the signals and relished the nostalgia. It would be a short burst of Sanders “receiver heaven”. Peyton never lost the ability to win games in the clutch.

            If not for the foot injury (that I still contend was exacerbated by him playing under center or out of the pistol — big difference from the shotgun BTW) I don’t believe there was a need to hide Manning at all. You may find this interesting: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/plantar-fasciitis/symptoms-causes/ . Kubiak compromised to the pistol after a couple games but almost never called a true shotgun play. Under Gase, the shotgun bought Manning time so he didn’t need to move around the pocket as much or pivot and run to a spot to make a hand off. He’d receive the hike, make his reads, step and throw. Not a lot of twisting or pushing off on his foot or heels to run.

            And Kubiak used the Brockweiler because he had more time with the team. Even though Siemian was younger, I think he would have done a better job running either offense, Manning’s or Kubiak’s, than the Brockweiler. Siemian is quite simply much smarter.

            Kubiak was good at player relationships and team building. He was never
            good at football strategy and tactics. John Elway trusted him as his
            best friend in football. This clouded his judgment. As with anything,
            especially when a team wins it all, it’s easy to say he made the right
            decision regardless of Kubiak’s shortcomings but it was a sorry way for one of
            the greatest of all time to go out. And I still contend it wasn’t necessary. He could have offered the job to Gase when he didn’t renew Fox’ contract. Gase would have left well enough alone and the Broncos would have won going away in 2015. And Peyton may still be playing … well maybe not this year but maybe in 2016.

            Your right. We’re not going to agree on this. It’s been fun jawing with you though.