Head to Head: Broncos run offense vs. Steelers run defense
A closer look at the game within the game
Sunday, October 21, 2007
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The names change, but the numbers almost never do. Terrell Davis. Olandis Gary. Mike Anderson. Clinton Portis. Reuben Droughns. Tatum Bell.
The Rocky Mountains might provide a nice setting for skiers and beer commercials, but they also have served as a breeding ground for 1,000-yard running backs. At least since Mike Shanahan became the head coach of the Denver Broncos.
"Whatever running back they have back there is always gaining a bunch of yards," said inside linebacker James Farrior. "It's been going on since I've been in the league."
Since he arrived in 1995, Shanahan and the Broncos have had a 1,000-yard back every season but one, and that was in 2001 when Davis was limited by injuries and gained 701 yards. But his replacement -- Anderson -- gained 678 that year, giving the Broncos a two-headed back who gained 1,379 yards.
The latest interchangeable part is running back Travis Henry, acquired in free agency after two seasons with the Tennessee Titans and four with the Buffalo Bills.
Henry, a Pro Bowl running back in 2002, has had three 1,000-yard seasons in his career. He is headed for a fourth -- he is fifth in the AFC with 498 yards rushing on 102 carries ----if he can continue to legally challenge a suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
"It's just the coaching," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "They have a great system, and the guys execute it well."
The Broncos and Steelers will share a similar philosophy, if not style, when the teams meet tonight at Invesco Field in Denver.
Since 1995, the Broncos (27,868) are the only NFL team to rush for more yards than the Steelers (26,799). They are also the only team with more 100-yard rushing performances (91) than the Steelers (82) in that time.
The Steelers, though, do a better job of stopping the run. They have the league's longest streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher (30 games) and have allowed just one in the past 55 games.
What's more, the Broncos' offensive line -- the source of their running success -- has been juggled because of a season-ending injury to five-time Pro Bowl center Tom Nalen (torn bicep). Nalen will be replaced by guard Chris Myers and Chris Kuper, a fifth-round pick in 2006, will start at left guard.
"He's a good player," nose tackle Casey Hampton said of Nalen. "But with that type of offense, if you have anyone quick get in your way, you can pretty much do the same thing."
The Broncos' offensive line uses smaller, quicker players to execute the zone-blocking schemes introduced by former offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and continued by Gibbs-disciple Rick Dennison.
However, the Broncos employ a lot of tandem blocks -- known as cut blocks -- that often blur the line of what is allowed under NFL rules. Opponents claim the Broncos use chop blocks, which are illegal as well as dangerous because they can cause injuries.
Nalen was fined $25,000 last season for a cut block he threw on San Diego defensive tackle Igor Olshansky in the final minute of a game.
"That's all they do," Hampton said of the zone-blocking schemes. "When you do something over and over, that's all you do, you get good at it. That's been their running game for the past 10 years. They just perfected it."