Thursday, September 7, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

After finishing 30th of 32 NFL teams in 2005, the Rams went into the free agent market and spent freely in hopes of boosting their anemic run defense.

Just how much the addition of the likes of La’Roi Glover, Will Witherspoon and Corey Chavous will improve the team’s ability to stop the run will be tested right away. In fact, there might not be a better early test for the Rams’ revamped run defense than the one coming to town Sunday.

The Denver Broncos will bring their vaunted running game to St. Louis on Sunday for the regular season opener at the Edward Jones Dome. Although it won’t determine how the team will stop the run all season, it should give the Rams an indication of where they are in their quest to improve.

“This could really set us up for our big picture,” Glover said. “We can have some success against these guys, get back into the confidence that we’ve got after that, and try and put some wins together.”

For now, the small picture is focused on Denver’s zone-blocking running game, a running game that has perennially been among the league’s best for the past 11 years. Under head coach Mike Shanahan, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, the Broncos have developed a scheme that seems to work regardless of the running back.

In that timeframe, Denver has seen unknowns such as Olandis Gary, Terrell Davis, Reuben Droughns and Mike Anderson become 1,000-yard rushers. Players such as Davis and Clinton Portis became superstars, but it really hasn’t made much difference whether the player was an undrafted free agent like Anderson or a second-round choice such as Portis. The results are always the same.

“It doesn’t matter,” defensive end Anthony Hargrove said. “Somebody is going to be taking handoffs. We could be looking for Gale Sayers back there and he could be headed toward a thousand yards, but we would still have to stop him.”

Since 1995, the Broncos have had ten 1,000-yard rushers and are first in the league in rushing yards with 25,022, more than one-thousand yards ahead of the next best team. In that same timeframe, Denver has eighty-two 100-yard rushers in a game, 11 more than second-place Pittsburgh.

Last season, the Broncos finished second in the league in rushing at 158.7 yards a game. That group was led by Anderson, who finished with 1,014 yards. Tatum Bell chipped in with 921 yards. Of course, the Broncos thought so much of Anderson’s performance that they released Anderson in the offseason.

This year’s version looks to a pair of Bells and Cedric Cobbs to emerge as the next in the line of rushers to hit the 1K mark. Rookie Mike Bell apparently led the competition for the starting job during camp, but Tatum Bell and Cobbs are both in the mix. Tatum Bell is the only experienced back of the group, making it hard to prepare for what the Broncos will throw at them in the running game.

“We’re just going to prepare for all three,” coach Scott Linehan said. “You kind of have to in openers anyway. I think very rarely do you go into an opener and just one back’s the primary ball carrier. You’re going to see at least two. We’ll see all three of theirs. That’s just the situation we’re in and we’ll prepare for all of them.”

While some on the Rams don’t believe that it makes much difference which of those three backs is the one in the backfield, Glover says it could make a difference and he will be paying attention to who is taking the handoffs (in the pregame warmups).

“I think it’s important for us to know who is starting because you can get a feel for them,” Glover said. “One guy may fumble more, you never know. Any little key you can pick up on a guy you can use against them.”

So, what exactly is it that makes Denver’s running game so successful? At the top of the list might be the continuity the team has had in its coaching staff and offensive line. Shanahan is in Denver for his 12th season and his system has stayed in place from the beginning.

Denver uses a zone blocking system in which its linemen are expected to get off the ball and get to the second level. The running back’s job is simple, find a cutback lane and hit it as fast as possible.

“We have to be disciplined,” defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy said. “Everybody knows those guys run the stretch and they get guys turning sideways and they’ll gash you for 100-plus yards a game. So we just have to be disciplined in our roles and go out there and execute.”

The stretch play has become a staple of the Broncos offense and is used by many teams around the league. To get an idea of what it is, let’s allow Kennedy to put the fine point on it.

“When the guys turn sideways and look like elephants on a parade and they just run to the sideline and the running back picks one side, make one cut and take it downhill,” Kennedy said.

Sure, it sounds simple enough. But if it were that easy, anyone would do it. The Broncos have the continuity of the system, but they also have the offensive linemen to execute the job.

None of the Broncos offensive linemen is particularly physically intimidating. Center Tom Nalen has been the mainstay in the middle of a line that just continues to churn out quick, talented linemen capable of hitting a block and moving to the next level.

Denver’s offensive line also isn’t afraid to get to the legs and knees of the defense. Cut blocking has been as much a staple of the zone blocking schemes as a player such as Nalen.

“You can’t think about it,” defensive end Leonard Little said. “It’s one thing you can’t think about. You just have to react to whatever they give you. If they cut us and we get up, the next time we have to play the cut-block. We can’t go out there thinking about getting cut-blocked. We just have to go out there and play the game.”

Further complicating matters for the defense is the way Denver uses the run to set up the pass. While many teams are capable of using their running game to open up the airways, few do it as well as Denver.

Take, for example, a stretch running play that Kennedy referred to. The “elephants on parade” take a turn to the right and the running back cuts it back for a 10-yard gain. On the next play, Denver is just as likely to run a variation of the same play in which quarterback Jake Plummer will fake the handoff and run a bootleg to the left where an open receiver down the field.

“The other thing that makes them so successful in their running game is the misdirection they offer in the passing game,” safety Corey Chavous said. “Often times that sets up some of their runs so that requires you to play disciplined football.”

Kubiak has taken the lessons he learned as Shanahan’s offensive coordinator with him to Houston where he is now a head coach. The Rams got a glimpse of the Broncos running game in the second preseason game against the Texans.

Although it is nearly impossible to glean enough from that game to stop Denver, it might be possible to contain it. There’s no mystery about what is coming, part of what makes the Broncos so successful. They will tell you what is coming and it can still work.

“I think the biggest lesson you can learn from Denver is that you don’t have to be multiple to be good,” Linehan said. “You just go at them and have a simple scheme and believe in it. I don’t know if there’s anyone doing any better. I think that’s probably the thing we’ve taken from teams like Denver. Hopefully we try to mold that kind of a philosophy into our running game.”