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Is the Denver Broncos running game actually better in 2015 than 2014?

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As bad as it has been so far this year, it might surprise you to learn that it was worse in some ways last season through four games.

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Through four games this season (excluding kneel-downs) the Denver Broncos have run the ball 86 times for 319 yards. The ranks them 28th in average yards per carry (3.7) and total rushing yards (again excluding kneel-downs). Last season after four games they were 27th in average yards per carry (3.6) and total rushing yards (325). While there is no substantive difference between being ranked 27th or 28th (they both suck), we can find some interesting things if we look deeper into the comparative running between this year and the last in the first 4 games.

The first four defenses the Broncos faced last season were the Colts, Chiefs, Seahawks and Cardinals. Those four defenses ranked 23rd, 30th, 2nd and 20th in terms of average yards per carry allowed in 2014. So outside of the Seahawks, they faced relatively weak run defenses in the first four games of 2014. No one knows where the Ravens, Chiefs, Lions and Vikings will rank at the end of 2015 for rushing defense, but if you look at the graph below you can see that the Broncos have done marginally better against them this season than they did against the their first four opponents in 2014.

The Broncos have a lower % of runs that get stopped behind the line of scrimmage (LOS) so far and a higher % of runs in the 4-7 yard range. Both of those stats are positive year over year. On the negative side they have significantly fewer long runs this year relative to last year. On an absolute number basis we have 86 non-kneel-down runs so far this year and they had 91 after 4 games last season, so the total number of running plays has been about the same. The chart below has the absolute comparative numbers for those who are interested.

Through four games in 2014, the Broncos had 12 runs stopped for negative yards. They have only had seven so far this season. They have admittedly had an astounding number of runs for no gain (19 so far this year - about 5 per game). They only had 11 at this point in 2014. So if we look at the total number of runs for zero or negative yards, the Broncos had 23 last season and they have 26 this year. Both values are horrible.

The Vikings are leading the league in average yards per carry at 5.04. They have 17 runs for zero or negative yards this year. The P*ts are leading the league in this category with only 8 runs for zero or negative yards.  The Broncos have 33 runs of 4 or more yards this season compared to 34 at this point last season. If you make that runs of 5 or more yards, they had 28 at this point last season and they have 23 this year. Not shown on the graph are Hillman's 72 yard TD run and Ball's 23 yard run (vs KC last season).

Any way you slice it, the Broncos running game started poorly last year and this year. It remains to be seen whether or not they will get improvement this year like we saw in 2014. The Broncos finished the season 20th in the league in average yards per carry and 15th in total rushing yards in 2014. They made those gains because of Manning's injury and also because of a concerted effort to run the ball. They also starting handing the ball to C.J. Anderson late in the year. Unfortunately for us, C.J. does not look like the same player this year as the guy who tore through the NFL in the final six games of 2014.