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Broncos still searching for a ground game

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos’ running game ranks 31st in the league. Cleveland’s rushing defense ranks 31st. If the Broncos can’t run on the Browns, who can they run against?

That’s the biggest question the Broncos face as they try to reach their Week 7 bye unblemished. On the other side of the week off looms a demanding November slate that includes games against the Packers, Colts and Patriots and a potentially tricky trip to Chicago, which has a host of former Broncos’ coaches on its staff, led by John Fox.

Defense and special teams have allowed the Broncos to get by in a 5-0 start that already has them atop the AFC West by three games. But with the ground game failing to get any consistent push and the passing game also struggling with interceptions, the offense is in a bind.

In head coach Gary Kubiak’s offenses, the run has typically set up the pass. But with so much shuffling on the offensive line dating back to Ryan Clady’s season-ending torn ACL during OTAs, cohesion hasn’t been there, and when the holes have opened, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman have not hit them consistently.

“We’ve had some changing going on up front,” Kubiak said. “That’s not an excuse, that’s football.”

The result is a ground game that ranks 31st in the league and has averaged fewer than 3.0 yards per carry in four of the Broncos’ first five games.

What’s going wrong?

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint one thing,” Kubiak said. “I’ll go back to last week. I don’t think that we really tried to run the ball. We weren’t committed to it.

“I think that we can get better as coaches scheme-wise.” he added later. “We can put them in a better position, but I have no excuse for you. I know that it’s something that we have to do better. When we tend to do it OK, it sure as hell helps our offensive football team. We just have to keep plugging.”

Kubiak has tried using the pistol formation to meld Manning’s ability to see the field while maintaining the concepts of the ground game. He used a six-offensive linemen formation early in the second half at Oakland, with Max Garcia serving as an eligible tight end. The Broncos gained six yards on back-to-back carries from that alignment, and didn’t go back to it until they were trying to run out the clock in that 16-10 win.

So desperate were the Broncos for help that they signed a blocking tight end to the 53-man roster Wednesday, adding Richard Gordon while waiving Mitchell Henry to make room for him. Gordon has four catches in his five-season career, but he isn’t being added to grab passes; he’s in Denver to try and add some outside power to the Broncos’ run blocking.

But Gordon’s signing shows that the Broncos aren’t happy with their run blocking, and with the trade deadline now less than three weeks away, the time to search for outside answers is now.

SERIES HISTORY: 25th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 19-5. Broncos have won 10 straight. The most historic meeting between these two teams was on Jan. 11, 1987, when John Elway led the Broncos to a 23-20 overtime win in the AFC Championship that was set up by “The Drive,” a 98-yard march in the last minutes of regulation to the game-tying touchdown pass.

GAME PLAN

–Cleveland’s vertical passing game has been the league’s most effective in recent weeks, with the Browns racking up a league-best 40 pass plays of at least 15 yards in the last four games. But the Broncos’ defense has done well at not only limiting big plays downfield, but using the pass rush to force big plays of their own, with a league-leading 22 sacks and seven interceptions. Even if DeMarcus Ware’s back spasms prevent him from playing, the Broncos will still try to generate pressure on Josh McCown and force him into mistakes.

Denver’s offense will try once again to find balance and run against another defense that will stack men in the box. Cleveland’s rushing defense ranks 31st in the league, allowing 149.4 yards per game. If the Broncos can’t run on the Browns, who can they run on?

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

–Broncos WRs Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders vs. Browns CBs Joe Haden and Tramon Williams.

Thomas and Sanders are the league’s most productive receiving duo in receptions and yardage, but neither Haden nor Williams has given up a touchdown since Week 2, and Williams has yet to allow a touchdown this year. Although the Broncos have made some deep connections, they haven’t turned them into touchdowns, and they need to find a way to change that.

–Broncos OLBs Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray vs. Browns Ts Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz.

Thomas and Schwartz have combined to allow just three sacks this year, giving Josh McCown plenty of time to locate receivers downfield.


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