Broncos look to be a little more grounded

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –- With the way things have gone for the Denver Broncos' offense in the season's first half, it seems every time Peyton Manning drops back to pass a slice of league history is along for the ride.

The eight-game numbers are, well, ridiculous. Manning's 29 touchdown passes are already more than the total in six of his previous full seasons as a pro. He has more touchdowns passes than any other team in the league has scored overall thus far. And the Broncos' 44 touchdowns -- passing, rushing and returns -- are 17 more than any other team has scored.

Yet not only do the Broncos believe there's more to come -- more variety, more ways to stress a defense. If things go the way they hope, they will get a little more impact from their running backs.

"Oh yeah, I think we can bring more," running back Knowshon Moreno said. "I think all of us, as running backs, think there is more we can do in the rest of the season."

Despite the fact the Broncos can rifle passes to players who can win matchups all over the formation, they want to wring a little more out of the run game in the season's second half. And the biggest reason why, even in this pass-first era, is that it's still the best way to protect the guy throwing the ball -- especially if he's a 37-year-old who has had four neck surgeries. Though the Broncos didn't need a reminder of all of that, Manning did arrive to the bye week as a fairly battered player, having taken plenty of heavy shots in the Broncos' last three outings before the week off.

So much so that Manning didn't take part in the team's two practices this week. Overall, Manning has always said few things slow down a defensive front intent on pounding a quarterback than the threat of a running back sprinting into the room left behind.

"And it opens up options, you get the play-action game going ... and have choices," Manning said. "It can open things up, when those linebackers and safeties have to worry about other things."

However, given their injuries up front -- left tackle Ryan Clady is on injured reserve and right tackle Orlando Franklin has missed just under two games -- to go with the fact Manny Ramirez is just eight games into his move from center to guard, the Broncos haven't always been productive when running the ball. The slow start and ball-security issues of two of their young backs, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, haven't helped.

As a result, the Broncos have had 35.9 percent of their rushing attempts this season go for two or fewer yards. That total includes 12 carries for no gain and 12 more for negative yardage.

But it hasn't been for a lack of trying. Like virtually all of the league's upper-tier teams, the Broncos have kept on running, whether it be to protect a lead or as a change of pace. Of the seven teams with at least six wins this season, six are among the league's leaders in rushing attempts. The 49ers (6-2) are first in rushing attempts per game, the Seahawks (7-1) are third, the Broncos (7-1) are sixth, the Chiefs (8-0) and Patriots (6-2) are tied for seventh and the Bengals (6-2) are 10th.

"And we're just going to lean on those guys more and more," Broncos coach John Fox said.

Moreno will continue to be the key for the Broncos, who recently benched Hillman because of a fumble late in the loss in Indianapolis and put rookie C.J. Anderson in the rotation. He joins Ball and Moreno, who's still the best of the group in pass protection, by far, so he's the choice much of the time when the Broncos are in their favored three-wide receiver set.

Moreno is also the most well-versed among the backs in the passing game as a receiver -- he had his first receiving touchdown of the season Sunday in the win over Washington. The Broncos do have to walk the line with his workload. He tore an ACL in 2011 and had another knee procedure this past offseason, which is why they need at least one of the youngsters to step forward in the coming weeks.

"[Moreno] has been a downhill runner, he's caught the ball well out of the backfield, he's been able to keep us, what we call 'keep us in phase'," Manning said. "... He has been stud for us in the first half of the season. We expect him to be better in the second half."

It will be a necessity after the bye, given the last three teams the Broncos faced -- Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Washington -- were far more willing to turn the heat up on Manning. He threw interceptions returned for touchdowns against the Jaguars and Redskins and fumbled on sacks against Indianapolis and Washington. Of the Broncos' first four games following the bye, two are against the Chiefs, who currently lead the league in sacks, and one against the Patriots, who are tied for eighth.

Moreno said whatever the task at hand will be, he's ready to dive in.

"When we get those first downs to keep the ball moving, to get those points on the board, that's all that matters," Moreno said. " ... I think everybody in our [meeting] room feels like that. All the backs, we have a good group of guys, we all know if they ask to do something we have to do it. We have to be a part of it. Peyton is the greatest and our receivers are great, but we have to be ready to when our number comes up."