Broncos' success based on run game -- just look at their record

Since the start of the 2017 season, the Broncos haven't won a game in which they attempted more pass plays than run plays. Kyle Emery/Icon Sportswire

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos' offense is in an odd place.

The team runs the ball better than most, and the amount the Broncos run is a determining factor in their success. In all 18 losses since the start of the 2017 season -- 11 last season and seven so far this season -- the Broncos have thrown the ball more than they have run it.

Overall, they are 4-18 the past two seasons with more throws than runs. They are 7-0 when they run more than they throw.

"Our success is really based through our running game," coach Vance Joseph said Monday when describing the early run-game struggles against the 49ers last week. "And that was slow coming [Sunday]. It affected our entire day."

The Broncos have had trouble with their run game of late, which has been bad timing for a 6-7 team that will need to win out and get help to finish anywhere close to the playoffs.

What's the problem?

To start, they like to play out of a three-wide-receiver personnel grouping. It has been their most-used grouping in all 13 games, including after the trade of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to the Houston Texans and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders' going to injured reserve. The Broncos don't protect quarterback Case Keenum consistently in that grouping -- 26 of the 30 sacks allowed have come in three-wide -- and they don't consistently win the line of scrimmage when they try to run between the tackles.

In the loss to the 49ers on Sunday, the Broncos tried five running plays out of three-wide in the first half and gained a combined 8 yards. Discounting a kneel-down to end the half, they played all but five snaps out of some kind of three-wide-receiver grouping. Those five possessions all ended with a punt, and they trailed 20-0 at halftime.

Asked Tuesday if the Broncos needed to do more with their personnel groupings, Joseph said:

"Well, yeah. Every game is different, and how we attack defenses is different each week. That defense ... whether you were in one back or whether you're in two back, you're going to see a loaded box. So our issue offensively was winning first, second down with our run game."

Also, as was the case Sunday, the Broncos haven't had the lead much in their losses, so they often run less while in comeback mode. They have held the lead for less than a third of the game eight times this season, including in six of their seven losses.

This is their progression: They don't pound the ball out of bigger groupings early in games, they fall behind, they dial back attempts to run, and they try to make a comeback.

Injuries have also played a part. The Broncos have lost three starters on the offensive line to injury: center Matt Paradis, guard Ron Leary and guard Max Garcia. Currently, they have four tackles playing on the offensive line alongside a guard -- Connor McGovern -- who has moved to center.

When they've committed to the run, even with the current group, the Broncos have carved out room against most any defense they've faced, including the Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers, who are Nos. 2, 8 and 7 in the league in total defense.

"It's about getting into a rhythm," Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay said following the loss to the 49ers. "… The second half, we had a little bit more spunk, a little bit more rhythm going into it, a little bit more attitude. That's on us. We've got to start fast. We can't keep our defense on the field when we're not completing drives. We've got to complete drives."

In their final three games of the regular season, the Broncos will face run defenses that currently rank 28th (Cleveland Browns), 31st (Oakland Raiders) and 11th (Chargers).

"We have to run the football," Joseph said. "That's our bell cow in a game: running the football, play-[action] pass and keeping the third downs manageable."

"There are a lot of things we can do better," Keenum said. "And getting first downs, however it takes, to stay on the field, that's the most important."