ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – The Denver Broncos boast the best running game in the NFL. The numbers are a bit deceiving, though. They pile up yards on the ground but not points.
The Broncos led the league with a 164.5-yard average and set a franchise mark with 2,632 yards rushing. Yet, they ran for just 11 touchdowns, including six by scrambling quarterback Tim Tebow and four by resurgent running back Willis McGahee.
“It’s definitely helped us get to where we are,” coach John Fox said. “… at the end of the day, we have improved every week. We’re doing it against loaded boxes, which is why we need to get the other phase on our offense rolling.”
Ah yes, the passing game.
While the Broncos have run roughshod over opponents, they’re 31st in the league passing the ball, better only than Jacksonville’s abysmal attack.
“What’s missing?” McGahee mused Sunday after the Broncos gained just 60 yards passing. “We’ve got to put the ball in the air to help out the run game. We’ve got to be good on both aspects.”
That’s something the Broncos (8-8) trust they can do Sunday when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) in a first-round playoff game, the first in Denver in six seasons.
“Our goal is just to be balanced, to continually keep defenses off-balance by not knowing if it is run or pass, and be able to hit big play-actions,” Tebow said.
Tebow also said he’ll heed Broncos boss John Elway’s admonition to “pull the trigger” by throwing, even into tight spaces, rather than being tentative as he was last week against Kansas City when he still appeared rattled by a four-turnover game at Buffalo.
The Broncos’ already low-octane offense has been stuck in neutral.
They scored just 309 points this season, an average of 19.3 a game, the lowest of any of the dozen teams in the playoffs. Take out the games that Kyle Orton started before he lost his starting job and the Broncos only managed 18.5 points per game.
Their rush is the most reliable aspect of their offense, but even then it’s not always effective when it matters the most, in the red zone.
The four other seasons in which the Broncos rushed for at least 2,450 yards, they scored 20, 25, 26 and 15 touchdowns on the ground.
McGahee said better balance would help the Broncos finish off drives.
“That’s something we have to work on,” he said. “The good thing about it is we’re in it. Anything can happen. Look at Seattle a year or two ago when they got in it. They made a lot of noise. That’s what we plan on doing.”
On Sunday, McGahee ran for 145 yards but Tebow was pinned in the pocket and managed just 16 yards in the Broncos’ 7-3 loss to the Chiefs, just their third loss in 89 times they’ve held an opponent to a touchdown or less.
While the mood has been mostly melancholy at the team’s Dove Valley headquarters this week – most players didn’t even bother taking the wrapper off their division championship T-shirts or bending the brim on their AFC West champ caps – McGahee has been jazzed as he prepares to face the NFL’s top defense.
And why not? At 30, he joined Ricky Watters as the only NFL running backs to top 1,000 yards for three teams with his 1,199-yard season, which included seven 100-yard games, tied with Houston’s Arian Foster for the league lead.
It’s been a refreshing change for McGahee, who served as Ray Rice‘s backup the last few years.
“I think that Willis is younger than probably his real age because he shared carries for the last several years in Baltimore,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I think that benefits a guy as opposed to a guy that’s been the central featured runner.”
Watching film, Tomlin said he sees the tough tailback that he saw in a Ravens uniform the last four seasons: “It’s the same Willis McGahee, great vision, more power than you think, awesome jump-cutter.”
Are the Broncos now a one-trick pony, though?
The clock seems to have struck midnight on Tebow, who increasingly finds himself hemmed in the pocket by defenses that force him to try beating them with his left arm instead of his legs. He’s had one TD throw and four interceptions the last two weeks to go with a lost fumble in each of his last five starts.
Asked if he felt he was playing for his future Sunday, Tebow replied: “I don’t think that’s necessarily what I’m focused on. I’m focused on playing for my teammates, and my coaches, and the fans, and going out there and trying to get a little bit better, trying to find a way to win this game and then worry about the rest at some later point.”
Elway has said he’ll work with Tebow on his throwing mechanics and footwork in the offseason, but Elway’s job is to find the long-term answer at all positions, quarterback included. So, it’s likely he’ll draft a quarterback and also sign a free agent QB this offseason.
Tebow can get a jumpstart on solidifying his status as the starter for 2012 with a good showing Sunday in his first pro playoff game.
More accurate passes would force the Steelers to back off the box and open more running lanes for McGahee, Lance Ball and Tebow himself.
The Broncos’ run game will have some new components, too.
They lost right guard Chris Kuper to a broken left leg last week, so veteran Russ Hochstein is filling in, and the Broncos signed former starting tackle Ryan Harris as insurance. With Spencer Larsen (knee) on the mend, rookie fullback Austin Sylvester is in line to get his first NFL action and seems eager to join the Broncos’ run-first offense.
“Everybody wants to pass first in this league,” Sylvester said, “but it’s like anything else, when you go back to the ground zero rules of football, if you control the ground, you can control everything.”
Notes: Broncos OC Mike McCoy said he was flattered he’ll be interviewing for the Jaguars head coaching vacancy after the season but is focused only on the Steelers. … WR/KR Eddie Royal (toe) returned to practice Thursday, but SS Brian Dawkins (neck) sat out again.
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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