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Pistol helps Broncos shoot ’em up against Lions

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Meet the new offense, same as the old offense.

While the Denver Broncos continue to work to get the ground game going, a third game passed with no consistency in that area, despite an emphasis on the pistol formation.

The Broncos used the pistol extensively in their 24-12 win at Detroit Sunday night, in part because it allows for a compromise between the shotgun alignment and a traditional one- or two-back set. Twenty-eight of their 64 offensive plays were in the pistol, with 30 in the shotgun and four under center.

Manning was more comfortable with the space and time to throw; his 31-of-42, 324-yard performance was more like his usual self, only marred by a tip-drill interception on the first snap of the second quarter. The Broncos put up 24 offensive points for the second consecutive week, and the offense’s production since shotgun formations were emphasized beginning in the second quarter at Kansas City on Sept. 17 has been transformed night and day from where it was before.

“We’ll continue to do it all, but obviously he was very comfortable and I think we made some strides (Sunday),” Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said. “We’ve just got to make some more.”

The Broncos’ passing offense is back to near the middle of the table; it ranks 17th after three games.

But the running game is the AFC’s worst on a per-carry and per-game basis. It is not only ineffective, but not explosive; the Broncos are one of just four teams without a run of at least 20 yards so far this season.

“We’re just struggling to run the ball, space-wise,” Kubiak said. “We have to look as coaches too because we’re doing a lot more one-back now than we probably ever have. We have to look at that and find them some space. I think that we can run better a lot of times, so I think that it’s a combination of everybody, but we just need to keep battling through it.”

Exacerbating matters are injuries. C.J. Anderson has battled toe and ankle problems since Week 1 and was evaluated for a possible concussion after a first-quarter collision before returning in the second quarter. Juwan Thompson suffered a neck injury in the second quarter and did not return. And Ronnie Hillman is speedy, but ineffective, and cost the Broncos what would have been a crucial first down by heading for the sideline instead of trying to cut back upfield on a third-down play in the fourth quarter.

The Broncos need Anderson to get back to his Pro Bowl form. But first they need to keep him upright.

“We have to keep C.J. on the field. C.J. has been coming off of the field. In the first three games he’s been nicked up,” Kubiak said. “Things are going on and we have to keep him on the field consistently.

“I think that it’s getting better in every place. I can’t really sit here and say that it’s just one thing and we’ll go out there and rush for 250 yards. I think we have to keep pounding and get better at a lot of things.”

But until the Broncos get better on the ground, they could find themselves in the same spot they did the last few postseasons.

–Only the New York Jets have procured more takeaways than the Broncos so far this year. But the significance of the Broncos’ 10 thefts — six interceptions, four fumble recoveries — is in comparison to where the Broncos were last year, when they didn’t get their 10th takeaway until their ninth game.

David Bruton Jr.’s fourth-quarter interception Sunday was the 10th, and it set up the game-clinching Peyton Manning-to-Owen Daniels touchdown pass. Wade Phillips’ scheme is the primary reason why, because the defense features eight starters who started last year.

Another reason? “Maybe a little bit” more work on takeaways in practice, says Bruton.

“Not saying that we didn’t work on it in years past, but guys have definitely taken it a lot more seriously,” Bruton said. “(We) know that we can win games. Especially throughout these first three weeks, being able to force 10 turnovers, we know what we’re capable of and we’re just going to keep having that hunger and that hunt in us.”

REPORT CARD VS. LIONS

–PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus. This was more like it: Peyton Manning spreading the football among Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Owen Daniels and first-year receiver Bennie Fowler, who broke out with 50 yards on four receptions, the first of his pro career.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: D. There were few holes and few opportunities as the Broncos cycled through C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson. They combined for just 42 yards on 18 carries, and gained just three first downs. With the passing game finding its form, this is the biggest trouble spot on the roster.

–PASS DEFENSE: A-minus. Matthew Stafford racked up 282 yards on 31-of-45 passing, but 55 of those yards came on a garbage-time drive that died in the red zone in the final minute. Without that drive, the Broncos would have held the Lions to 207 net passing yards. Denver’s pressure forced Stafford into two interceptions, and resulted in four sacks and nine hits overall.

–RUN DEFENSE: A. Although Joique Bell had the Lions’ first touchdown, the Broncos closed almost every hole created for Bell and Ameer Abdullah, and forced the Lions to abandon the ground game. They combined for just 29 yards on 18 carries. The effort moved the Broncos back into the league’s top 10 in rushing defense (seventh).

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B. The only miscues weren’t costly, and the Broncos came within one tackler of having the first defensive two-point score on a PAT after Aqib Talib blocked Matt Prater’s second-quarter extra-point attempt. Britton Colquitt dropped three of his five punts inside the Detroit 20-yard line and Brandon McManus hit a 48-yard field goal while sending all five of his kickoffs into or out of the end zone for touchbacks, effectively removing the explosive Ameer Abdullah from the equation.

–COACHING: B. The offense isn’t exactly what head coach Gary Kubiak wants, but he has adapted and helped Manning to his most consistent performance of the season to date. On defense, coordinator Wade Phillips mixed and matched his pass rushers to consistent effectiveness, and was able to deploy the fresh Shaquil Barrett in the fourth quarter, who capitalized and delivered a key strip-sack-fumble.


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