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Commitment to ground game, competing RBs rushing in more balanced O

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The last two weeks have witnessed a much-improved consistency on the ground, and this week's game against the Chargers should make it a third.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

While a quarterback competition in Denver may be brewing, a running back contest has effectively been going on every week, and it is helping propel the Broncos' rushing attack to among the best in the league.

Thanks to recent spurts from C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, the Broncos are tied for second-most individual 100-yard rushing games this season at five. Only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson has more with six.

What's even better is that the Broncos have not one - but two - backs to rely on for this kind of production. Hillman has put up 100+-yard games three times (against Minnesota, Cleveland and Chicago) while Anderson has done it twice (against Green Bay and New England).

Through 11 games, Hillman has a statistical edge with 587 yards and 6 touchdowns to Anderson's 496 and three TDs. Hillman's longest was a 72-yard run against the Vikings and Anderson's was last-week's much heralded 48-yard walk-off TD to beat the Pats.

But looking at Pro Football Focus grades, Anderson's overall performance is consistently better.

C.J. Anderson:

Anderson PFF

Ronnie Hillman:

Hillman PFF

Both 'No. 1' backs

Although Anderson had the better statistical game last weekend and was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week, Kubiak has once again named Hillman the starter for San Diego. But the coach has continued to emphasize he considers both players "No. 1 running backs."

"I think it's been competitive with what's happened. They know that they're both going to play and usually when one of them has a hot hand, they play a little bit more," Kubiak said, calling both players unselfish. "I think they understand exactly how we're going to play and they're going to both play. On any given day, they could be the most important guy back there. They compete. They push each other in practice. I think it's been a good situation and they're both becoming better pros."

Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison too believes it is good for the backs but also the entire squad.

On any given day, they could be the most important guy back there. They compete. They push each other. I think it's been a good situation.  -Gary Kubiak on Anderson and Hillman

"I think they've got a good competition amongst themselves, but it's all for the good of the team," Dennison said.

And that's how Anderson and Hillman see it as well.

"You just do your job and if you do your job well, you get rewarded that way," Anderson said of getting more reps after good performance. "I've been doing my job all year to the best of my abilities. Hard work pays off. It just came through at the right time."

And Anderson added that he's been enjoying the whole season, even when the injuries piled up and the yards weren't coming his way.

"I was having fun when I was getting a couple carries and Ronnie was out there having fun, making the big plays and things of that nature," Anderson said. "When you see your teammates balling, that's always a good thing. You just want add and be a part of that."

Or more likely get some of that glory too.

But whatever it is, running the ball has been consistently good the last two games after an abysmal start in the first three of the season - with the rushing attack never breaking 70 yards. The run game had an up-and-down performance the next six games, hitting around 150 yards in three but not even sniffing 50 yards total in two.

But in the recent matchups with the Bears and the Patriots, the Broncos had a much more balanced offense with 170 and 179 yards rushing in Weeks 11 and 12 respectively coupled with 219 and 254 yards passing those weeks.

Running game making a difference to Vegas

Not that Vegas should be the Broncos' measuring stick, but it's interesting that this season the running game (along with a hot-handed QB right now) are making Vegas pay attention to the Broncos.

Sports bettors were initially hesitant to give the Broncos much of an edge early in the season when it was the defense - and not Peyton Manning - winning the games, and then again when a backup quarterback was taking the reins. But after two weeks in a row of an impressive running game, Vegas is betting on the Broncos once again.

"When the Broncos have won, they've had a strong running game," says Zack Jones of Sports Book Review, adding that while Osweiler has gotten a lot of fan love, Vegas had been holding back. "But with 170 yards rushing against the Bears and then 179 against the Patriots - and Brock threading the needle on a few passes - oddsmakers are shortening the line on Denver."

Committed to the run

So why is the run game better now? Many want to make the starting of Brock Osweiler and more snaps under center as the reason for the resurgence in the rushing attack, but coach Gary Kubiak isn't ready to say that. Instead he attributes the improved ground game mainly to committing to the run. That makes sense when you consider the game plan for the Packers - 34 times running the ball for 160 yards total while Manning threw 21/29 for 290 yards.

Kubiak on Thursday highlighted the fact that the Broncos didn't start off running the ball well against the Patriots, but they stuck to the plan to run all the way through the game.

"Early in the game we didn't run the ball well. We just kind of stuck with it," Kubiak said, acknowledging that the ball gets to the line of scrimmage a little bit quicker when starting under center but that there are plenty of ways to make the gun work too. "That's the only big difference."

I just think the last two weeks we've kind of stuck with it. We've been patient.   -Gary Kubiak

Both backs have stressed having fun on the field and being patient to get the lanes, and Hillman sees that patience as one of the main reasons for the recent success. When the Broncos aren't playing catch-up, the coaches give the run game time to develop.

"That's with anything. When you start falling behind, you start thinking, ‘alright, throw the ball,'" Hillman said before the Chicago game in which he ended up rushing for 102 yards. Not spotting the other team a few touchdowns always helps. "I think just playing ahead is going to definitely help us. When you fall 14, 17 points behind, it's kind of hard to stick with the run game."

But Kubiak reiterated that the Broncos were down that much against the Patriots and instead of abandoning keeping the ball on the ground, the offense stayed the course. It worked out pretty well for us.

"I just think that the last two weeks we've kind of stuck with it. We've been patient," Kubiak said. "In Chicago, we got ahead in the game. Last week we were down, but we stayed patient. That defense was keeping us in the game. I think it's kind of been about how we've played. If we can continue to play that way, hopefully we'll run the ball better."