Broncos going back to their roots with ground game
Denver's defenders weren't the only ones who were pleased when the Broncos hired coach John Fox to replace Josh McDaniels.
Fox is known as much for his commitment to the ground game as he is for his defensive roots, and that has the Broncos' running backs, quarterbacks, offensive linemen, tight ends and even wide receivers smiling.
That emphasis on a power running approach has been missing in Denver since Mike Shanahan's famed zone-blocking scheme and agile linemen regularly churned out 1,000-yard rushers.
Quarterback Kyle Orton and his offensive lineman are embracing Fox's run-heavy philosophy, saying it will make the passing game more proficient, keep teams from blitzing so often, augment the play-action and provide more productivity in the red zone.
It will also help out Denver's defense, which ranked last in many categories last season because it was on the field so much.
The Broncos ran just 39 percent of the time last season after McDaniels traded away battering ram Peyton Hillis to the Cleveland Browns and rushed rookie linemen Zane Beadles and J.D. Walton into the starting lineup.
Fox plans a more balanced attack with the additions of 330-pound rookie right tackle Orlando Franklin and free agent running back Willis McGahee, who will share snaps with a slimmed-down Knowshon Moreno.
''It's the essence of football, I think, being able to run the ball and the mindset it takes to run the ball and stopping a run defensively,'' Fox said. ''I think it defines your team. A lot of it is pad level and just the tenacity to keep grinding. It's kind of like body blows in a heavy weight fight; they take their toll later in the fight or later in the game, and you won't see the results on them early, but they show their ugly head later.''
The Broncos have held run-heavy practices all week as they prepare for their second preseason game Saturday night against Buffalo The linemen have been let loose, the wide receivers and tight ends are blocking downfield and the usually stoic Orton is actually cracking a smile.
Nobody's happier about this dramatic shift in philosophy than the man who was sacked 34 times last season before finally being sidelined for the final three games with a rib injury.
Running more ''helps you in the key situations, red zone, third down,'' Orton said. ''Obviously, if you can hand the ball off on third-and-4, rather than getting all these crazy blitzes and coverages, it's going to help the whole offense.''
Orton said the Broncos got ''everybody's toughest look to pass'' in coverages last season. And yet, he still threw for 3,654 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Right guard Chris Kuper said it was difficult to pick up blitzers late in pass protection last year because opponents sent smaller, quicker defenders from all over the field.
And with no real ground game to speak of, the Broncos usually bogged down in the red zone with their play-action getting no respect.
''We want to be a multitask offense,'' Orton said.
He said the wide receivers have also embraced the new balance.
''I think the good thing is the receivers have taken a lot of ownership in blocking. I think they realize how much easier it's going to make their life if we can get single safety looks to throw the ball into,'' Orton said. ''The whole offense has embraced that and taken ownership in it.''
Fox is known as a players' coach and that's in no small part due to his run philosophy.
''If you ask an offensive lineman whether they'd rather pass block or run block, I think 99.9 percent it's a run block because it kind of fits their mold a little better,'' Fox said. ''I think all of the advantage is with the offense there, probably some of the bigger athletic mismatches there are in football today. Athleticism and size works to the advantage of the offense.''
Kuper said he was excited when Fox was hired because he knew he'd be doing more run-blocking than pass-protection.
''I think that's what offensive linemen pride themselves on is having a run game,'' Kuper said. ''It takes pressure off of other aspects of our game. It takes pressure off our quarterback. The time of possession is on our side if we're running the ball well.''
And that will be important if the Broncos hope to stay in games as they face one of the toughest schedules in trying to end a five-year playoff drought this season.
You'd think the wide receivers would be the only ones not embracing a heavier reliance on the run.
Wrong, said receiver Eric Decker.
''I knew when we hired John Fox, a defensive-minded guy, we were going to run the ball, and to break big runs you need perimeter blocking, and that comes with us,'' Decker said. ''The 6-yard run turns into 60-yard runs when the receivers are blocking downfield and I take great pride in it myself.
''I know the receiving corps, we've talked about it, we know that's our job to do. To get us open, we've got to run the ball, so it comes hand in hand.''
Connect with AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton at http://twitter.com/arniestapleton