Broncos want to be just like the Chiefs
The Denver Broncos returned from their bye week determined to find a ground game so they could keep their quarterback clean and their defense fresh.
In short, they want to be just like the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Broncos (2-6) stumbled through the season's first half with a turnstile offensive line that couldn't bore holes for a banged up backfield or plug the pass rush that turned Kyle Orton into a punching bag.
Unable to control the clock or correct their offensive imbalance and penchant for penalties, they were overexposed on defense, wearing down by the fourth quarter and losing three close games.
The Chiefs (5-3), who visit Invesco Field on Sunday, are atop the AFC West precisely because they're doing everything the Broncos aren't.
Cassel has been sacked 11 times, half as much as Orton.
''It's important to have a balanced attack and we've been doing a pretty good job all year keeping it balanced and mixing and matching both pass and run but also getting us in manageable third-down situations,'' Cassel said. ''And we've got two great halfbacks right now that have been doing a great job for us all year.
''And that definitely helps me because it takes some of that pass rush off and you don't become one-dimensional.''
Orton is envious.
''We've hurt ourselves so much that half the time we're in second-and-15, third-and-12. I mean, all you're going to get is pass rush in those situations and you're going to get their best pass rush,'' said Orton.
With a keep-em-guessing offense, the Chiefs have eaten up yards and clock, keeping their defenders fresh, and the result is a plus-6 turnover differential and a turnaround from last year's 4-12 campaign.
The Chiefs boast the league's best rushing attack, anchored by Broncos castoff Casey Wiegmann, a veteran center that Denver coach Josh McDaniels criticized last summer as too old, too weak and too slow.
The 37-year-old Wiegmann is doing just fine in Kansas City, where he returned this season after a two-year stint in Denver that included a Pro Bowl berth in 2008.
Wiegmann didn't seem bitter or upset when told of McDaniels' comments earlier this season.
''That's what they told me when they called me and said they were going to release me, that they were going to go with a bigger offensive line, a more powerful running game,'' he said.
The Broncos have certainly gotten younger, bigger, stronger and quicker - but not any better.
The Chiefs? They're older, slower and smaller up front, but much improved.
Cassel said Wiegmann is the reason the O-line has meshed so quickly.
''Oh, man. We've been so fortunate to have Casey here and he's done a tremendous job for us. He's a guy that's come in and never complains, just puts his head down and works hard,'' Cassel said. ''And he's a guy that's been leading since he stepped in the weight room this offseason. I don't think he even missed an offseason workout. He's a guy that's just added a tremendous amount of leadership and is just showing our young guys what it takes to be successful in the NFL.''
The team Wiegmann left behind sports the worst ground game in the NFL with a measly 67-yard average, more than 100 yards a game less than Kansas City.
The Broncos insist they'll be better in the cold weather because tailback Knowshon Moreno is finally healthy after being hindered by two torn hamstrings and they finally have the offensive line in place that they envisioned before Ryan Harris sprained his left ankle in the preseason finale.
Harris went back to right tackle this week with rookie Zane Beadles moving back to left guard.
They hope to cut down on the many hits Orton is taking like the one from San Francisco linebacker Manny Lawson two weeks ago that jammed his throwing shoulder into the turf and bruised his ribs, leaving him unsure if he could have played last week had the Broncos had a game.
Protecting their prolific passer - Orton is on pace to challenge Dan Marino's NFL record of 5,084 yards set in 1984 - is priority No. 1 for the Broncos.
To do that, they need better blocking up front, better blitz pickup from the backs, more production on the ground and cleaner play all around.
That way, Orton wouldn't have to air it out so much.
''I think any time the volume of passes goes up, the volume of hits on the quarterback tends to do the same thing,'' Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. ''I think it's a two-sided issue - run it better, throw it less - and he doesn't have to take as many hits.''
''We've become a balanced attack,'' Cassel said. ''That's important for any quarterback because at this time last year we were 1-7 and we were a struggling football team trying to find our identity.''
Just like the Broncos are now.