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GIF Horse: Establish the Run?

Can the ground game save the Denver Broncos offense from its own ineptitude?

If Garett Bolles is the best player on the Broncos’ offense, Phillip Lindsay is the engine.

It speaks to where Drew Lock is currently at in his development that my biggest complaint about Pat Shurmur’s Kansas City game is that he needs to ride the ground game more. Even in bad situations. I say this even as the Broncos rank near the bottom of the league in pass rate on 2nd and long.

The Broncos have run on 2nd and 6 or longer 32 times so far this season. 21 of those are on 2nd and 10 or more. Excluding holds for obvious reasons, the runner gained more than half the yards to the sticks on 19 of them. It may not sound good until you realize Drew Lock is one of the worst quarterbacks since 2015 on 3rd and long.

Gordon and Lindsay notched four such runs against the Chiefs. In fact, Gordon gained a first when Brett Rypien entered the game and every Chiefs defender had to know Shurmur would call a run. Gordon also found a way to dig the Broncos out from their own endzone when the score remained 10-6. If you can ignore Gordon’s fumbles, as they came on a flea flicker and pass, the ground game did its part against the Chiefs.

Melvin Gordon found a way to gain 6 on 2nd and 8.
Melvin Gordon found a way to gain 6 on 2nd and 8.

Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon ran for 147 yards on 26 carries against the Chiefs, even as Drew Lock dragged every other part of the team down with him. The ground game remained dangerous until Lindsay’s concussion, and was still functional after. Lindsay had 79 rushing yards on just 9 carries. Even if you take out his long of 20, Lindsay averaged just under 7.4 yards a carry.

Lindsay’s health hangs over everything as we’re still awaiting confirmation he’s cleared from concussion protocol, but it may be time for Pat Shurmur to lean on his ground game more. The strength of the Chargers’ defense is their edge rush, but teams have found success rushing at the right end. It should be a good week to give Dalton Risner or even Garett Bolles the green light to spring Lindsay into the third level.

The Broncos’ run game has become more diverse with Lindsay back in the lineup.

One way the Broncos have added to the ground game in recent weeks is as simple as incorporating Lindsay and his best run plays back into the game plan. They’ve also found ways to sprinkle in the kind of window dressing that makes plays hard to foresee.

Above, the Broncos come out in 11 personnel with Tyree Cleveland, Jerry Jeudy, and Noah Fant in a tight bunch to the left. Lock motions Cleveland before the snap, which gives him a head start on both Fant and the pulling Risner as they lead around Demar Dotson at right tackle. This design allows the Broncos to overwhelm the Chiefs with numbers, and Tyrann Mathieu doesn’t get to Lindsay until he’s almost 20 yards downfield.

The Broncos have the right pieces to become an old school rushing offense.

The other thing that really stands out as I’ve watched this year’s ground game vs. 2019 is how much better the personnel is. The tight end room is miles ahead of where it was last season. Noah Fant has made incremental improvements as a blocker, while Jake Butt, Andrew Beck, and Albert Okwuegbunam give Shurmur a number of ways to toy with run fits.

As much as I’ve griped about the Nick Vannett signing, he’s looked better the last couple of weeks. Vannett had rough opening two weeks of the season against the Titans and Steelers. He also has clear limitations as a receiver, but he’s decent on down blocks. Lindsay in the lineup means more gap blocking, so Vannett could really shine.

As for the offensive line, I’d say they’re improving. Bolles’ improvement is well documented at this point. Dalton Risner had his best game of the season against New England and played better than I hoped against Kansas City. Lloyd Cushenberry seems to have found his footing since Tampa Bay. That plus Demar Dotson replacing Elijah Wilkinson has helped Graham Glasgow to look more like he did with the Detroit Lions.

Speaking of Dotson, while it’s true that he’s a better pass protector than run blocker, he’s certainly looked like an upgrade over Wilkinson in all facets. Dotson isn’t an overpowering run blocker, but he knows how to use his feet to position himself and does solid work sealing down on the second level. He isn’t perfect by any means and I do still think Ja’Wuan James will be big upgrade in 2021, but as a bit of an emergency free agent signing, Dotson’s been a godsend.

There’s little question 2020 is about finding out if Drew Lock can play quarterback at an NFL level. That could make it tough to rationalize taking the ball out of his hands. It’s still the right decision.

It’s true that Drew Lock had a better game against the Patriots than the numbers show because of the dropped passes by receivers. It’s also true he made mind-numbing plays that hurt the Broncos’ chances to win the game. That was clearly still an issue against the Chiefs, and through three games he’s floundering: pre/post snap reads, situational football, anticipatory throws, ball placement, footwork, and pocket management all remain huge issues.

As Jeff Essary mentioned on Cover 2 Broncos, the Chiefs represent a bit of a perfect storm for Lock. Steve Spagnuolo is an aggressive blitzer who doesn’t hesitate to trap young quarterbacks. He also threw a number of different coverages at Lock and tried to take away his primary option. This meant Lock had to stand in the pocket, work through his progressions, and find the open man. Far too often, he couldn’t do it.

The ground game represents a way to give Lock a buoy while he tries to acclimate to the speed and complexity of the NFL game. It won’t turn the Broncos into a playoff team, but it could be the only way to save Lock before he drowns.

Let’s hope Shurmur throws him a life raft.