Bron­cos’ sea­son broke down af­ter it be­gan run­ning on fumes

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Groke

Min­utes af­ter the Bron­cos out­lasted Carolina in Fe­bru­ary to win the Su­per Bowl, Den­ver coach Gary Ku­biak ran into his boss, John El­way, for a hug and an im­promptu eval­u­a­tion.

“You can win it all kinds of ways, baby,” Ku­biak said into El­way’s ear, with con­fetti rain­ing down on the field. “You can win it all kinds of ways.”

The Bron­cos had just won a cham­pi­onship de­spite gain­ing only 194 yards of to­tal of­fense in their 24-10 vic­tory. They cob­bled to­gether just enough yards on the ground and in the air.

One year later, all those ways to win largely dis­ap­peared. The Bron­cos’ out­put from their pass­ing game re­mains largely the same as a year ago. Their de­fense is still stout. But the big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween an of­fense that fin­ished 12-4 and went on a Su­per Bowl run and the of­fense that will miss the play­offs this sea­son is a run game that bel­lyflopped.

The Bron­cos gained just 139 yards on the ground, in to­tal, over their past three games, just as their sea­son slipped away. They av­er­aged 46.3 yards per game over that stretch. In six of their 15 games this sea­son, Den­ver gained fewer than 65 yards rush­ing.

Den­ver’s rush­ing at­tack ranks 28th in the 32-team NFL. And when they lost the abil­ity to win

“all kinds of ways,” they lost key games.

“If you last long enough, you can go back and look at those great years when things work out for you, and you think about how the ball bounced for you to get there,” Ku­biak said this week. “Last year, we played in a lot of re­ally close foot­ball games. The thing we did last year, we were able to get leads in games. Peo­ple had to play dif­fer­ently against us.”

The Bron­cos, though, have not held a lead since Dec. 4. And in hind­sight, their sea­son turned in Week 7, when start­ing run­ning back C.J. An­der­son tore car­ti­lage in his right knee, end­ing his sea­son. With An­der­son in the lineup, the Bron­cos went 5-2, av­er­ag­ing 111.6 rush­ing yards per game. Since then, they are 3-5 and av­er­ag­ing 70.0 rush­ing yards per game.

The dif­fer­ence is stark. No. 2 run­ning back Devon- tae Booker is av­er­ag­ing 37.0 yards per game, with six starts. Justin Forsett, who joined the team ear­lier this month af­ter he was waived by two other teams, is av­er­ag­ing 21.7 yards per game, with two starts. An­der­son, in his seven starts, av­er­aged 62.4 yards.

Ku­biak’s of­fense, a tra­di­tional bal­anced set that calls for the run and pass games to work in con­cert, falls apart like a top-heavy snow­man when the run­ning backs can’t gain yards.

Den­ver ranks last in the NFL on third-down con­ver­sions in short yardage, when the the of­fense needs three or fewer yards. The Bron­cos rank 28th in first downs. And when they fail to run well early, and get a lead, they then stop run­ning the ball in or­der to try and catch up. At that point, the play­book falls apart.

“It’s been dis­ap­point­ing of­fen­sively,” Ku­biak said. “I can go to points and say that I thought we were mak­ing some good progress and started do­ing the things that we wanted to do. But ob­vi­ously you look at the last four or five weeks, we have not run the ball.”

When the Bron­cos fell in Oak­land on Nov. 6, a loss that flipped the power bal­ance in the AFC West from the de­fend­ing Su­per Bowl cham­pi­ons to the up­start Raiders, the dif­fer­ence be­tween rush­ing abil­ity was huge. The Raiders gained 218 yards on the ground, led by Latavius Mur­ray‘s 114 yards. The Bron­cos gained 33.

“Other than tell you that I’m dis­ap­pointed,” Ku­biak said, “I have noth­ing else for you.”

Bron­cos run­ning back Devon­tae Booker gets hit hard by Kansas City Chiefs de­fen­sive tackle Ra­keem Nunez-Roches af­ter a short gain Sun­day night. John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

Kansas City Chiefs de­fen­sive back Daniel Sorensen knocks the ball from the hands of Den­ver Bron­cos run­ning back Devon­tae Booker dur­ing Sun­day’s game. John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

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