ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are the face of a passing league.
They launched 675 passes this season, but it probably seemed like more to the defenses caught in the vapor trail. Quarterback Peyton Manning finished out the regular season with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns. If you're thinking about an NFL offense, there is a good chance you're thinking about Manning and the Broncos' fast-break, no-huddle attack first, or you don't get too far down the list before you do.
But in the postseason? The postseason brings the potential of defenses good enough to take away a team's preferred option. It also brings with it weather, with the kind of wind that grounds flights, let alone quarterbacks.
"We always want to have that option," Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno said of the team's ground game. "If they start calling our numbers, no question Montee [Ball] and I want to be ready to be those guys."
The highest-scoring offense in league history has already played its wild card in these playoffs. The Broncos ran the ball 34 times for 133 yards in their divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers. There is a feeling around the team that even with Manning and a passing attack that features a staggering five different players with at least 60 catches, the Broncos will need to go by land from time to time.
Sunday, the Broncos pounded when they needed to pound, they kept the Chargers off-balance enough that Manning was not sacked, and the Broncos threw the ball just two more times than they ran it. In the regular season, the Broncos threw the ball on 58.4 percent of their offensive snaps.
"It was critical; we stressed all week being productive on first and second down," Manning said. "We did not do that last time we played San Diego and got into some third downs and didn't convert those. We were good on third down because we were good on first and second down. That was the point of emphasis all week, and we carried that from the practice field to the playing field. It was good to see that pay off. A mix of some runs and some short passes to keep moving the chains. So it was a good job by the guys up front. I thought Montee and Knowshon both ran really hard.”
The Broncos were certainly not alone this past weekend. The four winning teams in the divisional round ran the ball a combined 149 times. In fact, the average rushing line in the four games was 37.25 carries for 166.75 yards. The Patriots ran for 234 yards, the Seahawks ran for 174 yards, the 49ers ran for 126, all to go with the Broncos' 133 yards.
That's a whole lot of dirt under a whole lot of fingernails for a league that has supposedly left grind-it-out football behind. But there is plenty of logic to go with the necessity. With passing attacks like the Broncos and Patriots have, defenses often answer with smaller personnel groupings in both the defensive line and in the secondary.
Against defenses built for speed, New England coach Bill Belichick has even taken the approach a step further. They not only run against those lighter groupings, they can repeatedly pound away with the mammoth LeGarrette Blount, at 250 pounds, or the 220-pound Stevan Ridley.
The Patriots ran the ball on 62.5 percent of the their offensive snaps in Saturday night's victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
And the last time the Broncos and Patriots faced each other this season -- Nov. 24 on a frigid, blustery night in Foxborough, Mass. -- the Broncos ran for 280 yards, with all but one of their 48 carries coming out of a three-wide receiver formation. They had 38 of those runs with Manning lined up in shotgun.
"When we're efficient in our running game, that is when you're looking for that balance." Gase said. "When we're able to move the ball efficiently in the running game and the passing game, that's when you get that. It's never really going to be 50-50. You try to get that. A lot of times it's probably more 60-40 for us ... And that is on me to make sure we make the adjustments we need to make and then stick with the run."
Because of the constant threat of the passing game all across the league, defenses are built more for situational football, for moving people in and out of the lineup, to defend wide-open formations and uberquarterbacks. Some defenses just aren't built to dig in, down after down, and defend, helmet on a helmet, the point of attack in run defense.
It's not so true in the NFC, where the two remaining teams in the postseason both finished in the league's top 10 in run defense -- San Francisco was fourth and Seattle was tied for seventh. In the AFC, however, only two teams in the playoff field (the Broncos and Cincinnati) finished among the league's top 10 in run defense (Cincinnati No. 5, Denver No. 7).
"We always feel like, as a defense, we need to be ready for when offenses line up and come right at us," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "I think in this time of year, teams are always going to look to run the ball. I think it's always been that way."
"I think balance is important, keeping the ability to do both [on offense]," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "It keeps defenses guessing a little better. It' s not easy to do, something you stress, something that I believe is important, especially in playoff season."