Woes of too many backs

Bron­cos have good prob­lem

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nicki Jhab­vala

The Bron­cos have a prob­lem that started with the NFL draft in April and was com­pli­cated by a pair of phone calls in the en­su­ing months, first to Kansas City and then to Natchez, Miss.

It’s a wel­come prob­lem — one that teams strive to have and one the Bron­cos are cher­ish­ing for the re­main­ing days of train­ing camp and the pre­sea­son. But it’s one they soon will have to solve.

With the se­lec­tion of six­thround draft pick De’an­gelo Hen­der­son, the sign­ings of vet­er­ans Ja­maal Charles and Ste­van Ri­d­ley and the re­turns of C.J. An­der­son, Devon­tae Booker (when healthy) and Juwan Thomp­son, the Bron­cos’ once-dor­mant run­ning game has seem­ingly been re­vived with a unique blend of tal­ent.

The pre­sea­son opener at Chicago on Thurs­day was a test of pa­tience as the Bron­cos con­tinue to work through the kinks of a new scheme and search for the starter at mul­ti­ple po­si­tions, none more sig­nif­i­cant than quar­ter­back. But among the more promis­ing as­pects was their ground game,

which gained 106 yards (4.1 per­carry av­er­age) against the Bears and in­cluded the win­ning 41-yard touch­down run by Hen­der­son late in the fourth quar­ter.

“What we saw tonight is what he’s been since we drafted the guy in the spring,” first-year Bron­cos head coach Vance Joseph said of Hen­der­son af­ter the 24-17 vic­tory over the Bears. “So I’m not sur­prised to see that tonight.”

For the past two years, the Den­ver run­ning game has failed to launch in the way gen­eral man­ager John El­way en­vi­sioned. But this sea­son — thanks in large part to a re­made of­fen­sive line whose pride is tied to run block­ing — sure has the po­ten­tial to be the charm and the key to sup­port­ing Den­ver’s quar­ter­backs and stillde­vel­op­ing of­fense.

“From what I watched on film to what I see now, it’s a dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude,” Joseph said. “In my opin­ion, it’s the of­fen­sive line that has made the most im­prove­ment. Now, run­ning back-wise, adding Ja­maal Charles and adding a guy like Ri­d­ley, that ob­vi­ously makes you bet­ter. It makes the com­pe­ti­tion tough in that room.”

Sub­way and sec­ond chances

Train­ing camp opened with a set­back. Booker, Den­ver’s No. 2 run­ning back who had been push­ing to be No. 1, suf­fered a frac­tured wrist. A pair of screws would fix him, but the Bron­cos couldn’t fill his void on the field for the re­main­der of camp and the pre­sea­son.

En­ter Ri­d­ley, a free agent who spent four years with the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots and topped 1,200 yards rush­ing in 2012 but started only six games over the last three years be­cause of in­juries. His shot at a ca­reer re­vival was of­fered July 27.

“I told my mom about it at Sub­way,” he said with a laugh. “A small coun­try town in Natchez, Miss., there’s not too many op­tions. You’ve got Wendy’s, Mcdon­ald’s and pretty much Burger King, so Sub­way takes it.”

Then he drove three hours to New Or­leans, boarded a plane to Den­ver and worked out for Joseph, of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Mccoy and run­ning backs coach Eric Studesville in­side the Bron­cos’ field house. Then he signed on a dot­ted line, suited up in a No. 47 prac­tice jer­sey and took the field for his first walk­through. All in a day’s work.

The next morn­ing, Ri­d­ley an­nounced his ar­rival af­ter throw­ing on shells and a hel­met. He “flashed” — a term Den­ver coaches have used of­ten to de­scribe their rush­ers — show­ing his abil­ity to find his holes at the line and power through them.

Ri­d­ley said he wanted to pro­vide “sta­bil­ity” to the run­ning backs room, but he has been a wel­come dis­rup­tion — and a con­tender for a cov­eted ros­ter spot.

“He’s a pro,” Studesville said. “He ap­proaches this the pro­fes­sional way. And he knows the great op­por­tu­nity that’s sit­ting here. We’re very ex­cited about him.”

The Bron­cos also are ex­cited about Charles, once an AFC West neme­sis as a Kansas City Chiefs star who signed a one-year con­tract in May to fit with Joseph’s theme of in­fus­ing the of­fense with speed. Charles didn’t play Thurs­day against the Bears, but he is ex­pected to take the field at some point in pre­sea­son as he eases his way back from knee surg­eries that hin­dered his last two years in the league.

He says his trou­ble­some knees no longer are a con­cern. The Bron­cos hope he’s right.

“I don’t feel rusty. I feel good,” Charles said af­ter two days of camp. “I told the guys in the locker room, when I see one of you kids beat me, it’s time for me to give it up.”

So far, that kid test­ing Charles is Hen­der­son, a 5-foot-7 speed­ster from Coastal Carolina who has given the Bron­cos a weapon on the ground and in the pass­ing game.

“Speed kills. That ain’t my game,” An­der­son said. “So, No. 28 (Charles) or No. 33 (Hen­der­son) can go out there and they’re fast. If it’s time to bulk some mus­cle and hit some­body in the mouth, call No. 22.”

Tail­back “no longer a one-guy po­si­tion”

If Joseph had his way, the depth chart that was an­nounced last week wouldn’t ex­ist. With mul­ti­ple po­si­tion bat­tles un­der­way and many lines blurred be­cause of scheme, the depth chart is mis­lead­ing and tem­po­rary.

It could change — as quickly as the Bron­cos’ run­ning backs room changed.

But for now, An­der­son is No. 1. For now, Booker — de­spite his wrist in­jury — is No. 2. For now, Charles, Ri­d­ley, Hen­der­son, Thomp­son and Bernard Pierce are lumped to­gether in the No. 3 slot.

“The run­ning back po­si­tion — you need two or three guys that can carry the load,” Joseph said. “It is no longer a one-guy po­si­tion.”

The com­pe­ti­tion could prompt the Bron­cos to take on an­other tail­back and sac­ri­fice depth else­where, es­pe­cially as the backs flaunt a dy­namic few other NFL teams can match.

“I also think the way we’re used in the pass­ing game is that other ex­ten­sion of the run­ning game,” An­der­son said. “So if we’re not run­ning the ball well, but catch­ing the ball out of the back­field and keep­ing the de­fense hon­est, we’ll still open up some lanes for us to run the ball.”

It’s a Den­ver prob­lem that could make for tough de­ci­sions Sept. 2, when ros­ters across the league must be pared to the fi­nal 53.

“Tough? No,” Studesville said with a smile. “Tough is when you don’t have any­body.”

Jonathan Daniel, Getty Im­ages

C.J. An­der­son, play­ing Thurs­day night at Chicago, is the No. 1 tail­back on Den­ver’s depth chart.

Ar­bo­gast, The As­so­ci­ated Press Charles Rex

Bron­cos quar­ter­back Trevor Siemian (13) hands off the ball to run­ning back C.J. An­der­son (22) dur­ing the pre­sea­son foot­ball game against the Chicago Bears.

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