Broncos seeking higher ground
Run game has been shell of former self
By Lee Rasizer, Rocky Mountain News
October 9, 2004
Olandis Gary did it. Mike Anderson did it. And now it might be Reuben Droughns' turn, at least in the short term.
With Quentin Griffin battling a left ankle sprain, the Denver Broncos need a running back to pick up the ball and run with it when they host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday (2:15 p.m., KDVR-Channel 31).
Griffin practiced sparingly Friday after missing two days of practice.
If not Droughns, who is expected to see his carries increase regardless, then rookie Tatum Bell or Garrison Hearst must help take up the slack, either as a workhorse or, possibly, on a rotational basis with the hobbled Griffin.
The situation, in many ways, is no different than in the 1999, 2000 and 2001 seasons, when Terrell Davis was forced out with a variety of ailments, or December, when Clinton Portis missed a crucial game at Indianapolis and Griffin saved the night to help the Broncos clinch a playoff berth.
There is a major difference, though, from those previous seasons.
Those were boom times for the Broncos' rushing attack, when rushing lanes appeared as often as political advertisements do these days on TV. Now, creating success is the goal instead of sustaining it.
Even when healthy, Griffin has had his struggles, though Denver's inconsistent blocking has played a major role, too.
The Broncos can swallow hard and accept their 18th-ranked rushing attack because they are 3-1 and leading the AFC West. But they also know the 254 rushing yards on 91 carries - 2.8 yards per attempt - they have mustered since the opener won't cut it long term.
Running is the team's identity. And the Broncos surely are aware quarterback Jake Plummer's run of three consecutive games without an interception can't last indefinitely.
The reasons behind Denver's lack of production in the run game have varied in each of the past three weeks. The common thread is all the congestion around the line of scrimmage.
"I don't see any excuses there," Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "I just see us having to get better, and we're working hard at it. Last week (at Tampa Bay), even though the numbers weren't big, we stayed committed to what we were doing and kept pounding and, in the end, it gave us a chance to be a dangerous football team in their stadium. We just need to keep plugging away and the big plays will come."
It might be up to Droughns to provide them.
That the fullback is in this position is far removed from the plans Denver had even two months ago. Griffin's impressive off-season and training camp seemed to ease concerns about filling the void left by the off-season trade of Portis to the Washington Redskins.
Coach Mike Shanahan said earlier this week the plan was for Griffin to be the primary runner in two-back sets. Anderson was expected to contribute in short yardage and in single-back sets.
Additionally, Hearst could provide a breather to either player, while Bell was the wild card - developmental icing on the cake.
But Griffin lost three fumbles in the first three games and, at times, has looked tentative. Anderson was lost for the season because of a groin injury. Bell hurt his ribs and finger and missed substantial practice repetitions. Hearst battled a sprained ankle and has played sparingly.
"I don't waste any sleep over that stuff," running backs coach Bobby Turner said. "We're going to line up and we're going to play and you make adjustments, just like you do in any situation, in any organization. We don't have the ideal situation. We don't have, obviously, what we started with. But that's life."
And, as in life, there are strange turns.
Just ask Droughns.
This past off-season, he went to teams essentially hat in hand as a free agent begging for more offensive "touches" and not to be viewed strictly as a hard-hitting fullback and special-teams player.
Kubiak promised him that chance if Droughns stayed, which he did by signing a three- year, $3.6 million contract.
And last week, even with Griffin healthy until the final offensive snap, Droughns took part in 54 of 68 offensive snaps, including 41 at fullback and 13 as the lone setback.
More telling, Droughns was given eight carries and three passes were thrown in his direction. He had logged 12 rushes in two-plus seasons with the Broncos before the Buccaneers game.
"Reuben's kind of created basically some space for himself," Kubiak said. "He's done some good stuff and he deserves an opportunity to carry the ball some and play."
Kubiak recalled a third-and-1 run in which Droughns nearly was stuffed in the backfield only to dive forward for a critical fourth-quarter first down at Tampa Bay.
"Up to this point, our best run of the season," Kubiak said. "(Droughns is) a threat with the ball in his hands, so we have to do a better job of giving him more opportunities."
Droughns' contributions at fullback, though, make him an unlikely lead back for the long haul.
Griffin, at this stage, still figures to gets the majority of carries in the long term when healthy, unless his ball security remains an issue.
There has been some public sentiment for Bell to get more involved but he might need more time before he's entrusted with a major role. The second-round pick from Oklahoma State has six carries for 27 yards in three games.
"Obviously, since we've been here we've played rookies . . . but anytime a kid misses reps out of the lineup, it's tough to make back up," Turner said. "This isn't mini-camp. The game plans change. Defenses change. All those things change. And you can't get that back."
Broncos coaches have been understandably quiet about their plans for the Panthers game, so Carolina has to prepare to play all those backs.
Denver has to prepare similarly, given the recent upheaval.
"If we need them, they've got to be ready to play," Turner said of the group behind Griffin. "Period."