ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – As August turned to September, the Denver Broncos looked like a team prepared to keep what was likely the youngest group of running backs in the league.
So young in fact that, at that point, a soon-to-be 23-year-old Ronnie Hillman (his birthday is Sept. 14), who was entering his third NFL season, was the most experienced player in the room. Montee Ball had just started his second year in the league, as had C.J. Anderson, and Juwan Thompson made the roster as an undrafted rookie.
So young that running backs coach Eric Studesville said; “I take nothing for granted, I never assume they know, I’ve gone back to the beginning on a lot of things, there is no item too small to coach.’’
Now, 13 games later, the Broncos are 10-3 and all four have shown the trust in the youth group was in no way misplaced. All four, with Thompson’s 63 yards rushing in the Broncos win over the Buffalo Bills Sunday, have led the Broncos in rushing for at least one game this season.
Along the way Anderson has had two 100-yard games and Hillman has had two 100-yard games to go with Anderson’s three rushing touchdowns against the Bills.
“You try to go out there and make plays and find a way to win; you have to give it to the big boys up front,’’ Anderson said. “You have to give it to Juwan, who had a hell of a game [Sunday] so that just lets you know the big boys up front they are doing their thing. It doesn’t matter who’s in the game in our backfield, we’re going to make it happen.’’
With Ball (right groin) and Hillman (left foot) still working their way back from injury, the Broncos have added Jeremy Stewart, a third-year back who played 17 games over two seasons with the Oakland Raiders, to the mix. After Anderson left Sunday’s game briefly with a left ankle injury, Stewart got his first carry.
With the Broncos’ shift in recent weeks to a more balanced look on offense, Anderson has had 80 carries over the last three games. That’s the busiest three-game stretch for any Broncos running back since Reuben Droughns in 2004.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase said it’s Anderson’s ability to keep moving forward without taking the direct hits from would-be tacklers that will enable Anderson to carry the ball plenty if the Broncos want him to.
“He’s a big guy,’’ Gase said. “With the amount of carries he’s had, he’s probably only taking one shot where he didn’t see it … but for the most part he does a great job of putting himself in a great position of not taking that direct hit.”
“I’m good, I’m good,’’ Anderson said. “I’ve been saying … I’m as good as long as those big boys up front are good. As long as they keep doing what they’re doing, I keep picking the right spot, we’ll keep making it happen.’’
Ball and Hillman worked with the team’s strength and conditioning staff during practices last week but have yet to take part in a workout with the team since their respective injuries. Ball has missed the last three games. Hillman has missed the last four.
Anderson has earned his place at the front of the line in terms of carries, but if and when the Broncos get fully staffed at running back, Hillman would quickly see some snaps in the longer-yardage packages because of his ability in the passing game.
Studesville has said “things always work themselves out,’’ and that the work will be divvied up to those “who earn it and get prepared to play.’’
“I think all along we felt like the guys in our room could do the job if they were asked to do the job,’’ Anderson said. “We are young, but we prepare hard and when [Studesville] says go in, we go in. Do what they ask you to do and do it right, that’s how we approach it and I think that whoever goes in has gotten the job done.’’