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2009 Denver Broncos Season Review: Running Back

For as long as any Bronco fan my age can remember, the running game has been a staple of this team. Denver has churned out thousand yard backs like clockwork, and fans have gotten used to an offense that establishes the run to set up the passing game offensively.

A lot of the Broncos' success at the running back position was thanks to Mike Shanahan's zone blocking scheme, where it seemed the Broncos could sign Burt Snurd off the street and make him into a premiere back in the NFL.

Despite the Broncos' success in recent years, their last 1,000 yard back was Tatum Bell in 2006, and ever since then, their running game has really struggled.

Travis Henry was signed in 2007 to a lucritive deal with the hopes that he would give the Broncos the featured back they had not had since Clinton Portis in 2003. In short, Henry was arguably the biggest free agent bust the Broncos have ever brought in.

His injury riddled career in Denver was mixed with drug issues and lack of pure production on the field, and that opened the door for Selvin Young, who a lot of Broncos fans thought could be a great back provided he could stay healthy.

Denver entered the 2008 season with Young as the featured back, and he couldn't stay healthy, but he wasn't the only one.

In what might be considered the single most impressive revolving door at one position in the NFL due to injury, the Broncos stumbled to the 12th best rushing attack in the league. The leader of that attack was fan favorite and rookie seventh round pick Peyton Hillis.

Broncos fans entered the 2009 offseason knowing full well that Peyton Hillis was capable of carrying the full load, and that McDaniels might come in and bring on a veteran and maybe a later round rookie to compete with Hillis and add some much needed depth.

McDaniels came in and made running back a top priority in the offseason, signing Correll Buckhalter (Philadelphia) and J.J. Arrington (Arizona) almost immediately after free agency began. Arrington's deal never amounted to anything because of a surgery that would require him to miss the entire 2009 season.

He later added LaMont Jordan as a free agent who he knew from his days with the Patriots. The Broncos had put together a solid, but not great core of backs, and when the draft came around, McDaniels and the Broncos' new staff decided to throw everyone a curveball.

Instead of going with defense (namely Brian Orakpo) with the 12th overall pick, they decided to take the top running back available in Knowshon Moreno.

Moreno was thought to be the perfect fit for McDaniels' system. Though he is still very young (came out of college as RS Sophomore) he has excellent leadership skills, great hands out of the backfield, he is an exceptional blocker for the position, and he is the type of power back that this offense requires.

The rookie was late to training camp, which hurt him both in terms of learning the offense and getting acquainted with full contact football in the NFL. Not coincidentally, he was injured early on in the preseason and was barely healthy enough to play in the Cincinnati game.

With Moreno as the featured back, Denver's running game is promising for the future, but he needs some help.

Though he led the NFL among rookies in rushing in 2009, his yard per carry average was under four. A lot of that had to do with the Broncos' interior blocking and transition to their new offensive scheme, but Moreno was expected to be productive in this offense, and he certainly was.

Along with veteran Correll Buckhalter, the Broncos at times had one of the league's most feared rushing attacks. When the running game was hot, the offense was blazing. Inversely, when the running game was anemic, so too was the rest of the offense.

It is no secret that Josh McDaniels' offense requires a sound running game to be effective, and that couldn't have been laid out any more black and white in the Broncos' 2009 campaign. Here is a graphic of the Broncos' rushing attack week by week, and a correlation between yards, points scored, and the result of the contest.

Game Yards Rushing Points Scored Game Result
@ CIN 75 12 W
vs. CLE 186 27 W
@ OAK 215 23 W
vs. DAL 116 17 W
vs. NE 103 20 W
@SD 101 34 W
@BAL 66 7 L
vs. PIT 27 10 L
@WAS 120 17 L
vs. SD 115 3 L
vs. NYG 138 26 W
@KC 245 44 W
@IND 95 16 L
vs. OAK 80 19 L
@PHI 70 27 L
vs. KC 84 24 L

This graphic paints a very interesting picture, and one that I think speaks volumes to this season. The Broncos only ran for 100 yards or more in 9 of their 16 contests. Of those nine games, the Broncos won seven.

Going by this statistic, if the Broncos ran for 100 or more yards in every game, they would have won 13 games this season. Obviously there are other factors that play into games, but clearly when the Broncos run the ball effectively, they are able to control the clock and their offense prospers.

In games when Broncos ran for 100 yards or more, they averaged over 23 points per game, and if you discount the San Diego game at home (no clue how they ran for 100 in that one) they averaged 26 points per game in those where they rushed for 100 yards or more as a team.

As I stated earlier, the Broncos needed the running game to be effective offensively. Kyle Orton was successful as a Chicago Bear because he had a sound defense and a good running game to go along with his mistake-free approach to the game. When the Broncos had a similar formula (see six game winning streak to start season) Orton was at his very best. He even snuck into the MVP discussion for a while.

The Broncos' offense must provide Orton with a sound running game, because this offense cannot be effective in so many 1st, 2nd, and 3rd and long situations. I know the amount of screen passes and slants we saw this season were almost sickening, but those can be extremely effective if your running game is on.

In fact, that is probably what McDaniels envisioned all along. An elite running game to go along with an effective short passing game would give the Broncos a huge edge and a winning formula on offense. Combine that with a top ten defense, and you've got yourself a Super Bowl contender.

Unfortunately, the Broncos' running game was too inconsistent. Running for over 100 yards (barely, in some cases) in only nine games is completely unacceptable for an NFL team with playoff aspirations.

How can the Broncos fix this issue moving forward?

  1. Establish the interior line for the future
  2. Add another power back
  3. Add a speed back

The Broncos' 2010 draft is going to be critical to the immediate future of this team. I know there are many on this site who believe Idaho guard Mike Iupati is going to be a hot prospect for this team during the draft, and I would agree. For those not in the know of Iupati, he is a 6'6" 330 pound beast from Idaho who will likely go somewhere in the late first or early second round.

Adding Iupati for the Broncos is all but essential, but there is another prospect the Broncos need to focus on earlier in the draft process. Florida center Maurkice Pouncey recently declared himself eligible for April's draft, and he will undoubtedly enter the process as the consensus top center prospect available. At 6'5" 320 pounds, he is exactly what the Broncos should be looking for on the interior of their offensive line.

If the Broncos could find a way to add both of these players, they would have arguably the best young offensive line in the NFL, and one of the biggest, which is something this offense yearns for.

Adding a power back will be simple for Denver. The Broncos could look to a power back in any of rounds two through seven, and here are some of the top available prospects to add some pop to Denver's rushing attack:

  1. Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech, 5'11'' 235
  2. Ryan Matthews, Fresno State, 5'11" 225
  3. Toby Gerhart, Stanford, 6'1" 240
  4. Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State, 6'0" 240
  5. Ben Tate, Auburn, 5'11" 215
  6. Charles Scott, LSU, 5'11" 231
  7. Keiland Williams, LSU, 5'11" 226
  8. LeGarrette Blount, Oregon, 6'1" 250

Of the players on that list, I am most intrigued by Ben Tate of Auburn and LeGarrette Blount of Oregon. I am encouraged by Tate because of his willingness and ability to adapt to new offensive schemes in his time at Auburn. He is a durable player, and he will play through any nagging injuries. Very tough. He has good instincts as a runner, and is very competitive.

Blount is an intriguing prospect based on his size and speed combination alone. He is one of the best in the college game at finishing runs, and I think he would be absolutely worth a late-round flyer despite his character concerns.

As for a speed back, I think the best option might be to bring back J.J. Arrington for a short-term deal. I know the coaching staff really liked him last offseason, and if he has fully healed and has been maintaining shape, he would be a nice addition to this team as well as a great special teams player and receiver out of the backfield.

If we look to a speed back in the draft, Ole Miss' Dexter McCluster seems like a great fit for this team. He is a very coachable player with elite top-end speed, and he is as versatile as any player in this draft. He will take a slide during the draft because he is only 5'7", but we all know as Broncos fans not to count a runner out because of his size, having been burned plenty of times by Darren Sproles.

I also recently became intrigued by the possibility of drafting a guy like Jahvid Best or C.J. Spiller in the first round if we obtain an extra pick in exchange for Brandon Marshall. It seems like a long shot, but we should never count it out as a possibility.

Overall the Broncos' running game was far too inconsistent to receive an above average grade from me. Only nine games of 100 or more yards as a unit, and a group that only ranked 18th in the league in rushing, I give them a final grade of C+.

This is a unit that has a lot of promise in Knowshon Moreno going forward. If he and Buckhalter can stay healthy, and the Broncos can add a couple of fresh sets of legs in the offseason, this unit could be the key that ignites a Denver playoff run in 2010.