Is it time for the Broncos to make Royce Freeman the featured back?

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Part of it is simple math. Only one guy can get the ball at a time.

But as the Denver Broncos try to find their way on offense these days, there is plenty of evidence rookie running back Royce Freeman had shown enough, done enough, flashed enough potential to get that ball more often. Broncos offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has said it’s time to “take the training wheels off” in how the Broncos use Freeman, as well as fellow rookie running back Phillip Lindsay, in the team’s offense.

“Royce has done a super job breaking tackles after contact,” Musgrave said. “Both he and Phillip are running really well. We need to get more of them, more turns ... and let them go because they’re doing great.”

And there seems to be the rub for the Broncos, especially with a run-through-contact back like Freeman has shown himself to be. The Broncos want Freeman, as well as Lindsay, to be physically ready to contribute in games past Thanksgiving.

So, they’ve tried to manage things. But they also want those games past Thanksgiving to mean something, and right now they’re 2-3 with a three-game losing streak that threatens to balloon into something worse if they don’t get their offense clicking.

And three carries for Freeman in the second half of a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and one carry in the second half of a loss to the New York Jets this past Sunday isn’t doing that. Because the Broncos aren’t just good when the use Freeman and Lindsay to run the ball, they are one of the league’s best.

Even with the current tempered approach, the Broncos are third in the league in rushing, at 137 yards per game. A team that has struggled to close the deal to finish drives with touchdowns is tied for third in the league with six rushing touchdowns.

But the rulebook, the trends, the passion even, for offense in the league is directed at throwing the ball. And the Broncos have tried plenty and yet find themselves 2-13 since the start of the 2017 season in games they throw the ball more than they run it.

At times this season they have simply looked stuck between what they seem to want to do and what they are unquestionably better at.

Consider this: there are currently five running backs in the NFL who have enough carries to qualify to be among the league’s rushing leaders and have averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry. The Broncos have two of those backs: Freeman and Lindsay.

For the Broncos, Lindsay’s touches have remained fairly consistent. He has had at least 12 carries in four of the Broncos’ five games to go with a smattering of targets in the passing game. But Lindsay is often the Broncos’ back of choice, along with Devontae Booker, when the team opens the formation in a three-wide receiver set.

And despite their struggles in pass protection at times, that continues to be the personnel grouping the Broncos have used the most. To get Freeman in the lineup more -- he had eight or fewer carries in three of the Broncos’ games and has played fewer snaps than Booker at times -- the team’s decision-makers will have to either put him into that three-wide receiver set or use one of the other personnel groupings more.

For his part, Freeman has said “we have a great running back group, and just being interchangeable at any point in a game helps us. I just want to win and help us be successful.”

Somewhat lost in the 34-16 loss to the Jets last Sunday was that the Broncos did line up Freeman and Lindsay together in the backfield for the first time this season, including their fourth play from scrimmage against the Jets. It resulted in a 29-yard run for Lindsay.

“It’s our ‘20 pony,'” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “ ... And we handed the ball off twice and got some big plays. Then when they close the middle, you can throw it and move Lindsay out of the backfield as a fourth receiver option. It’s purely scheme.”

Joseph has said Freeman has proven he should touch the ball more, and Freeman has said he’s ready for any and all work that comes his way.

“I’ll just work and stay ready,” Freeman said. “Every time you get an opportunity to help, you make the most of it. That’s it, that’s how I approach it.”