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Broncos need offensive line overhaul in order to restore run game

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Even with time to think about it, to step away, to stop and smell the proverbial roses for a few weeks, it still gnaws at former Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak.

Because in virtually all of his time as an offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL, one given was Kubiak's offenses running the ball successfully. As in anytime, anywhere.

The pinnacle of the success -- Terrell Davis -- was selected to the Hall of Fame a couple of weeks ago. But just days before Davis was rewarded for being the rarest kind of player, Kubiak was still shaking his head at the Broncos' 2016 run game.

"It does eat at me a bit -- a lot," said Kubiak, who stepped down after the season because of health reasons. "You've got a way of doing things, and it's worked, it's been productive, how you teach it, how you coach it. And I can tell you we worked as hard as you can work to fix it this season. And I've said that was just the biggest disappointment, but they've got a plan for that."

In 2016, the Broncos were 27th in rushing at 92.8 yards per game and 28th in yards per carry at 3.6. They put in the effort without results given they were tied for 15th in carries at 25.6 per game. And while the decision at quarterback will dominate the narrative around the Broncos, what it will take to repair the run game is far more indicative of what they need to do in the offense's overhaul.

In short, the Broncos were shaky on the offensive line all season. They didn't consistently win at the point of attack or protect their young quarterbacks. The Broncos surrendered 40 sacks and far more big hits on Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.

Siemian had offseason surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder, an indication of the struggles up front. And a quarterback, especially a young one, without a run game creates a target-rich environment for opposing defenses.

"Everyone always wants to look at a quarterback and say you have to have this quarterback," Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. "I'm not taking anything away from the quarterback position. It is critical to have that guy, but you have to have the five guys up front playing as one and doing everything right ... so that quarterback can sit back in the pocket and do what he can do."

McCoy's first call was to one of his former assistants with the San Diego Chargers -- Jeff Davidson -- to coach the offensive line. Davidson then wanted John Benton as the assistant line coach.

The combination of the two shows McCoy is leaning toward his approach in his last stint with the Broncos -- he guided the offense for four seasons before taking over the Chargers in 2013. That included a run game that featured both a gap scheme at times, with more straight-ahead, one-on-one blocking, mixed with the zone scheme -- the linemen move together to block defenders in specific areas. Davidson has used the gap scheme more; Benton is versed in the zone scheme, having been Kubiak's offensive line coach for eight seasons with the Houston Texans.

"Jeff is a great gap-scheme, power-scooter guy, and John Benton was the best at the zone-blocking schemes, so having both of those guys should allow us to do both," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. "When you're doing both, you want linemen that are aggressive—quick laterals. So that won't change whether there's a zone-blocking scheme or a gap scheme. Same guys."

Which leads to the expected depth-chart overhaul on the offensive line. Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway is expected to have north of $42 million worth of room against the salary cap for free agency. Team president/CEO Joe Ellis has said the Broncos are prepared to make a substantial investment "back into the team." And they may have as many as 10 draft picks.

The Broncos have also been pleased with the progress of the three backs who finished the season on injured reserve -- C.J. Anderson, Kapri Bibbs and fullback Andy Janovich. Anderson has said he expects to be "better than ever" in his recovery from surgery just before Halloween.

It's all on the same to-do list, McCoy said, and no one will be exempt from the repairs.

"There [are] a number of things that, I think when you look at the offensive line, it's not just them," McCoy said. "It is everybody. That has got to be the emphasis with our whole entire team. We've all got to look at ourselves first, and we've all got to say, 'OK, how are we going to get better? What really is good enough as an offense?' We're going to push the limit every day ... I will say this, Jeff Davidson and John will make them play better, and they will play better next year."