ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Few things raise hives on the skin of passing fanatics like a discussion about the role of the run game.
Toss in a phrase about "balance" or "run-pass ratio" and it might be cause some of those folks to breathe into paper bag.
So, they all might have forgive the Denver Broncos. Because even with the best group of wide receivers and tight ends they've had since quarterback Peyton Manning, the Broncos see a role for the run game in 2021. So much so that it might even -- gasp -- help quarterback Teddy Bridgewater get a little more room to throw and, they hope, help push them above the 22.2 points per game mark for the first time since 2014.
"I'm seeing a physical offense," general manager George Paton said earlier in training camp. "We're physical up front and we're four deep at running back. They can all run the ball and they're all different -- they're physical. ... I think we have to be physical up front and we have to be physical in the run game to help our pass game. I do like our weapons outside in the pass game and the tight ends as well."
During the preseason they flashed a play-action based offense and did their best work in the passing game from bigger personnel groupings such as two tight ends or two running backs, including on an 80-yard touchdown from Drew Lock to KJ Hamler in the preseason opener.
In last season's 5-11 finish, the Broncos' offense led the league in interceptions and giveaways overall. The team rarely led in games -- 27.9% of the time -- and never led in six games.
In that environment, the offense was almost always in catchup mode, usually unable to protect the quarterback or move the ball efficiently in the three-wide receiver look it elected to play much of the time. Enter Paton, in his first offseason on the job, who gave plenty of offseason attention to the offensive line, selected running back Javonte Williams in the season round and signed running back Mike Boone in free agency. They join last season's leading rusher Melvin Gordon as well as Royce Freeman.
"Our run game is where it needs to be," left tackle Garett Bolles said. "We have some of the greatest backs in the NFL. I think our line is stronger, bigger and tougher than it has been in the past. This is the best Broncos O-line since I've been here just because of how close we are -- how we move together, how we talk together and how we eat together. We do everything together. It's a great group of dudes, and I love each one of those guys."
Coach Vic Fangio said the Broncos offense can challenge defenses with some lighter fronts and keep opposing pass-rushers away from the quarterback. Fangio said in the preseason he believes teams that win, even with marquee quarterbacks, haven't abandoned the run game. Three of the past five Super Bowl winners have finished among the league's top seven in rushing, and two of those title winners featured Tom Brady at quarterback.
With preseason caveats acknowledged, the Broncos ran the ball more times than they threw it in the preseason. Bridgewater was not sacked in three preseason games, did not have a turnover and the Broncos finished all but one of the possessions he played with points.
"The running game is one of our strong suits," Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb said. "All those guys can run the ball at a high level. They can get 20-30 carries a game and still be able to churn out those big pieces of yards at the end of the game. It's going to be fun. It's going to be really good for us to have them ground and pound in the run. Having [wide receivers] Courtland [Sutton] and [Jerry] Jeudy and KJ [Hamler] and all those guys catching the balls in the pass -- teams are not going to know what to do with us."