Over the past nine seasons, they have consistently moved the ball on the ground.
By ROGER MILLS
Published October 2, 2004
TAMPA - In the past two weeks, the seemingly immortal Broncos ground attack has looked quite vulnerable, totaling 143 yards on 56 carries and producing no touchdowns.
Bad numbers, by most standards. Embarrassing production, considering Denver's rushing pedigree.
But winless in their first three games of the season, the Bucs will guarantee themselves a fourth mauling in as many weeks if they believe Denver's running game has mysteriously disappeared.
"That's what they do. They pride themselves in getting great backs late in the draft, and year after year he's proven that his system works, regardless of who's behind there at quarterback," said Bucs linebacker Ian Gold, who spent the first four seasons in Denver, of coach Mike Shanahan. "They're going to come in here and try to run the football and we expect nothing less. We're up for the challenge."
Good advice. Over the past nine seasons, Denver has made dedication to success in the running game an absolute prerequisite for anyone planning to play offense.
During that span, Denver has had a running back rush for at least 1,000 yards eight times. The Bucs, at the same time, have had only three 1,000-yard runners, the last being Warrick Dunn with 1,113 in 2000.
"They know what they're doing," said safety John Lynch, a first-year Bronco who spent 11 seasons with the Bucs. "They stick with the run. They make an attempt to establish the run every week and they don't give up on it even if they're struggling early. I wouldn't expect anything different than trying to get back to that running game and getting it going. That's what this offense has thrived on over the years."
What is striking about Denver's streak is that it was accomplished by four different backs, three of whom had modest draft status: Terrell Davis (sixth-round pick, 1995), Olandis Gary (fourth, 1999), Mike Anderson (sixth, 2000). The fourth, Clinton Portis (second, 2002), came into the league with questions about his ability to take the pounding.
Shanahan said it begins with talent and commitment.
"Players give you a chance to win," he said. "You can't do anything without players. Scheme obviously helps them, but it surely doesn't do it for them. It starts up front with the commitment from everybody that we're going to run the ball. You've got to block. Wide receivers have to block, tight ends (have to block) and you have to be cohesive. You're going to have your ups and downs but it's got to be your philosophy and a belief that you're going to be consistent."
Aside from successful evaluation of running backs, the Broncos have enjoyed success running the ball because of the nature of their offensive line, their insistence on drafting and signing players who fit that mold and an offensive scheme that takes advantage of that.
On opening day, the Broncos' front five was the smallest pound for pound in the NFL. Right guard George Foster (6-5, 338) is the only member of the starting lineup over 290 pounds.
"They drafted linemen to do a specific thing for a very long time," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "These are athletic guys that block the stretch play. You have to be able to reach block, get up on the secondary and cut linebackers. They have to be able to run. Their passing game is a lot different to most NFL teams, they fake the ball one way and come out the other way and then throw."
Lynch said the offensive linemen take tremendous pride in their reputations.
"It's like great defense in Tampa, people come to expect it," he said. "You see why when you practice against them everyday. It's almost like watching the defensive line in Tampa. They work great in unison, they work together and it's that zone blocking scheme that's been successful."
Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said the Broncos' scheme at the line of scrimmage is unique.
"They have a great system and it's worked for years," Kiffin said. "The zone blocking is totally different. Everyone blocks an area, a gap. They don't pull guard or tackles, there are no counters."
Naturally, Denver's historically potent running attack wouldn't have any street cred if the Broncos didn't have a passing game. They had it with John Elway, saw glimpses of it with Brian Griese and hope to lock it down with Jake Plummer.
"If people ran the ball like that and didn't throw it, they couldn't be nearly as successful," Kiffin said. "Shanahan has always had a passing game. Last week's game (against the Chargers) was a great example. San Diego plays eight or nine men in the box and the Broncos are forced to pass and they do for 294 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, score 23 points and win the game."