Run to Daylight. Can commitment to ground game help Broncos rebound?

Williams, Perine solid, but not factor in second halves of first two losses
Javonte Williams
Posted at 8:55 PM, Sep 20, 2023

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos’ awful start forms a cascade of opinions.

They are a bad team continuing a forgettable stretch – 5-18 over their last 23 games – and the home losses as a favorite cement them as a pretender.

They are better than expected. Their two defeats by a combined three points signal a team that will start winning close games even against better teams.

Or, and probably closer to the truth, they are seven-to-eight-win team that will find its water level but will lament a stumble out of the starting block that included squandering 13-10 and 21-3 first-half leads.

The Broncos needed to get off to a fast start. Forget how NFL history mocks 0-2 teams. The Broncos schedule becomes vicious soon with four of their next six games on the road, including at Miami and Kansas City. Denver went 1-8 on the road last season.

The Dolphins present a daunting challenge this week, ranking first in yards (463.5) and yards per play (7.3) and third in points per game (30.0). The Broncos counter with 24.5 points per game. So, with Denver’s defense struggling in a way not seen since 2020, how can the Broncos pull off the upset? Taking the air out of the game with the running attack provides a potential solution.

The Dolphins rush defense has been gashed, allowing 160.5 yards per game in the first two weeks. The Broncos boast an average ground game –108 per week – but the key components lose steam in the second half and become less effective.

While attention focuses on Russell Wilson’s slumps after intermission – he averages 10.3 per attempt in the first half, 5.3 in the second – the run game deserves attention, if not scrutiny. The Broncos spent their offseason upgrading their offensive line with free agent left guard Ben Powers and right tackle Mike McGlinchey, blocking tight end Chris Manhertz, reserve running back Samaje Perine and fullback Mike Burton. Coach Sean Payton made it clear multiple times over the last few months that “running needs to be part of this team’s DNA.”

Through the first two weeks, the results have been mixed. The Broncos rank 15th in yards, seventh in yards per carry (4.8), but sit 24th in attempts. And that’s where things get curious and offer hints of help. Can the Broncos get Javonte Williams, Perine and Jaleel McLaughlin going and continue momentum into the second half?

Williams has made an inspiring recovery from ACL and PCL surgery 11 months ago on his right knee. His numbers are fine – he has 25 carries for 98 yards — but nosedive after halftime. He has carried 10 times for 22 yards in the second half. Samaje Perine has six carries for 35 yards in the second half, leaving them combined for 16 for 57. Last week, the stats were eye-opening following halftime for the duo – 6 carries for 16 yards, and two yards from Williams.

It is hard to remain committed to the ground game when a lead evaporates, and that played into the usage last week as the Broncos were outscored 32-3 from the middle of the second quarter to the middle of the fourth. But again, it goes back to how this team was built – to punish opponents upfront, to play physical, to establish the tone. And if there’s one thing three years of Vic Fangio’s defenses in Denver taught us is that the group will give up yards on the ground.

In Week 3 against the AFC’s best team through two weeks, the Broncos’ chance to limit Tua Tagailoa, the league’s passing leader, is to keep him off the field. The Broncos need better from Williams and Perine after halftime. Williams should continue to improve as he knocks off the rust. I didn’t expect him to play until October following his surgery, so he deserves patience. For Wilson to become better in the second half, it starts with more balance.

And let’s not forget this: McLaughlin has not been a factor. He had one carry last week for six yards and a touchdown. He didn’t see the ball in the second half. His speed demands 5-to-7 touches moving forward. He could also provide a way to keep Williams fresher in the second half.

The Broncos sit winless after two weeks. They could easily be undefeated with one less defensive penalty, one less onside kick, one more field goal and a single two-point conversion. But the NFL is as sympathetic as a photo radar ticket. It’s about results. For Denver to win, it makes sense to lean more on the run.