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Here's how the Broncos finally found their offensive identity

Andrew Mason Avatar
December 9, 2020

You can argue that it should not have taken this long.

Seventy-five percent of the regular season has passed, and barring a Festivus miracle to end all miracles, the Broncos are assured of missing the postseason for a fifth consecutive season.

But as the Broncos enter the final quarter of the season, they finally has its offensive identity: Power football, starting with consistent control of the line of scrimmage.

It’s old-school. In the past three weeks, no team ran on a higher percentage of its downs. Even if you remove the no-quarterback anomaly that was the Week 12 game against New Orleans, the Broncos rank fifth in run percentage.

But if you take out that game, the Broncos’ average of 5.58 yards per carry in the last three weeks leads the NFL in that brief span. And over the course of the season, the Broncos are 4-2 when they rush for at least 108 yards and 0-6 when they do not.

Establishing the run and effectively firing off the snap is not a certain path to victory for the Broncos. But failing to do so has doomed the Broncos to defeat.

“When we run the football — really, when any team runs the football — a lot of things open up for it for us,” left guard Dalton Risner said. “We need to continue establishing that identity, and we need to continue rushing for 150-plus yards and establishing that.

“People will know, ‘Hey, these Broncos are going to grind it down the field. The o-line is going to work, running backs are going to hit their holes and wide receivers are going to block, too.’ We needed to establish that a little bit more on Sunday night, but that’s something we’ve been working on and getting better at.”

The pieces seemed to fall in place for this strategy in the offseason. Denver’s two biggest free-agent pickups were right guard Graham Glasgow and running back Melvin Gordon, the latter of whom signed a contract that gave him the league’s sixth-highest cap figure among running backs this season. With the presence of two-time 1,000-yard rusher Phillip Lindsay, the Broncos were poised to have perhaps the best 1-2 running punch in the league.

Lindsay suffered a Week 1 injury. Gordon had issues off and on the field, with a DUI charge and four fumbles. The Broncos found themselves playing from behind against a demanding schedule.

This forced the run identity to develop in fits and starts. In back-to-back games against the New York Jets and New England Patriots in Weeks 4 and 6, Gordon and Lindsay surpassed 100 yards. Those were the only two games that saw either pass the century mark in rushing yardage until Gordon galloped through the Chiefs for 131 yards on 15 carries last Sunday — a figure that he felt could have been higher if not for losing his footing on a field that appeared to be in rough shape.

“You watch that film and we rushed for [179], but we could have rushed for 250,” Risner said.

Nevertheless, the line’s improvement is palpable. improved. Demar Dotson stabilized right tackle after stepping in for the injured Elijah Wilkinson; with the latter healthy, Dotson remains the primary option. Glasgow has stabilized, and swing backup Austin Schlottmann has become a dependable depth piece.

And then there is the play of center Lloyd Cushenberry III. The rookie struggled for long stretches in the first eight games of the season as teams tested him with A-gap blitzes. During those contests, Cushenberry allowed 22 pressures, as calculated by Pro Football Focus.

But in a testament to how the offensive line’s improved form reflects in both pass protection and run blocking, Cushenberry’s play has improved, as well. In the last three games, Cushenberry has allowed three pressures — a rate of one every 43.0 pass plays. That is a drastic improvement over the rate of one pressure permitted every 16.0 pass plays in the first half of the season.

Like the entire line itself, Cushenberry is growing. Mike Munchak’s unit, maligned for years before the legendary line coach’s 2019 arrival, is becoming a pillar of the team’s present-day performance and an anchor of its long-term hopes.

“When you establish yourself in the run game and you establish it and impose your will on the defensive line as an offensive front, it opens a lot of different things for your offense,” Risner said. “Moving forward, if we continue to do that, we will find success.”


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