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Did Broncos have a better running game this year than last year?

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During the off-season I made some charts that provided a visual analysis of our running 2013 running - how often we got runs of various distances. How does this year's histogram compare to last year's? Read on to find out

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

In 2013 against good (or great) run defenses, the Broncos could not run the ball, partly because we didn't need to run the ball. Our passing game was that deadly. However, in the games where our passing attack floundered (like the Super Bowl), our running game was not able to carry the offensive burden. At first glance this was not the case in 2014. Not only were we able to run, but we committed to it emphatically in the latter third of the season.

Fattening up on weak run defenses?

One of the fallacies that has been propagated is that we only ran well against poor rush defenses. This is not the case. Here is the yards per carry allowed by the 13 defenses that we faced this season and where that ranked in the NFL:

Team 2014 ypc allowed NFL rank DEN ypc against them
Indianapolis Colts 4.3 23 3.2
Kansas City Chiefs 4.7 30 4.7
Seattle Seahawks 3.4 2 1.8
Arizona Cardinals 4.4 26 3.3
New York Jets 3.8 6 4.2
San Francisco 49ers 4.0 11 4.3
San Diego Chargers 4.5 29 3.6
New England Patriots 4.0 9 2.5
Oakland Raiders 4.0 8 4.3
St. Louis Rams 4.2 15 2.8
Miami Dolphins 4.3 21 5.7
Buffalo Bills 4.1 14 4.6
Cincinnati Bengals 4.2 18 4.5

We faced 5 defenses that finished in the bottom third and 5 teams that finished in the top third of the league in terms of yards allowed per carry. Notice that I have highlighted the teams that we did better against than their average ypc allowed. Also notice that of those opponents only the Jets, 49ers and first Raiders games happened before we made the commitment to the running game. In other words, after the Rams game we ran better against every opponent than the rest of the league did (with the exception of game @SD). Big Pete's point about doing this against weaker run defenses is fairly valid since of our final six opponents only the Bills and Rams finished in the top half of the league in ypc allowed. However, we can't discount the results against Jets and 49ers unless you assumes that both teams were conceding the run by playing light boxes against us. The Jets may have been doing that, but I can't remember.

So these results seem to suggest that we did have a better running game than last season, but let's dig deeper into the numbers to see if that statement holds true.

Carries Yards TD AVE 1st Downs
2013 461 1873 16 4.06 107
2014 443 1785 15 4.03 98

We ran the ball fewer times this years and had a slightly lower average gain. We also had 9 fewer rushing first downs in 2014 relative to 2013. If you remove the kneel-downs from both seasons we averaged 4.35 ypc in 2013 and only 4.26 ypc in 2014. The NFL counts kneel-downs as runs for -1.

Let's focus on the final six games of the regular season in which we ran the ball 195 times for 892 yards (4.57 ypc). Here again I have removed knell-downs. In the 10 games prior to that we averaged 3.99 ypc. So we added more than one half of a yard per carry after committing to the run.  We had 424 runs that were not kneel-downs this season.

Comparing to 2013

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I'm going to drop a chart here that compares our running game from this year to last year

So if we truly did better in 2014 than in 2013 in terms of running the ball then the white line should be above the blue line in most places. It's not. There aren't many distances where we did better this year than the last.  This becomes a little more obvious in the zoomed version below

I will note that many of 5-20 yard runs from last season came against NE in NE when they were all but begging us to run against them. If you remove them, it would look more favorable to 2014, but the fact remains, for the season, our running game did not improve much relative to 2013.

After the Commitment to Running the ball was made

It is interesting to look at a comparison of the first 10 games and the last 6 games to see how much improvement we made in running the ball.

This chart shows that we did a much better job of getting runs of 6 or more in the last 6 games than we did in the first 10. The credit for this goes to the offensive line and C.J. Anderson, both of whom did great work in the final six games.

Why this matters right now

The Broncos should be able to run on the Colts on Sunday

As noted above, the Colts were in the bottom third of the league in run defense this regular season. The 103 rushing first downs that they allowed in the regular season is the second worst of any team still alive in the NFL playoffs - only the Packers allowed more. So the Broncos should be able to run on the Colts on Sunday, controlling the clock , keeping our D fresh and keeping Luck off the field. Should we win on Sunday either of our potential AFC championship opponents is better at stopping the run. The Ravens ranked 3rd in ypc allowed and the Patriots ranked 9th. The only NFC team left that was good against the run is the Seahawks. The other three teams were in the bottom half of the league in ypc allowed. In our previous meetings this season with NE and SEA we ran the ball poorly, but I'm really interested to see what will happen if we face either team after we have firmly committed to making our running game a weapon and not just an afterthought.