Posted Sat Jun 2nd by Jon Heath
There is a misconception among many fans and pundits that the Denver Broncos won’t run the ball in 2012 — and if they do, it will be rarely, and even more rarely will a fullback be utilized. Denver’s offseason acquisitions suggest otherwise.
To help grasp the Broncos’ commitment to the run, consider the history of Head Coach John Fox and Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy. The two coaches spent six years together coaching the Carolina Panthers and their offenses consistently ranked among the top ten rushing attacks in the league during that time.
From 2002-2010, Carolina offenses led by Fox and McCoy averaged 1,917 rushing yards a season and produced four individual 1,000-yard rushers. Last season, Denver’s offense led the league with 2,632 rushing yards and produced another 1,000-yard rusher, Willis McGahee.
The duo of Fox and McCoy has seen success on the ground while using two main running backs and a reliable fullback. During the offseason, Denver drafted running back Ronnie Hillman in the third round of the draft and traded for Indianapolis Colts fullback Chris Gronkowski, enabling them to continue their use of two-back formations after the departure of Spencer Larsen, who started at fullback last season.
During training camp, Hillman will compete with Knowshon Moreno and Mario Fannin to secure the No. 2 RB position on Denver’s depth chart. The coaching staff’s history of two backs sharing carries – in addition to Denver solidifying the position in the offseason – suggests that the team is not going to move any from their successful running game in 2012.
And Gronkowski will have a role in the running game. On Thursday, McCoy spoke with media members and hinted that Gronkowski was an upgrade over Austin Sylvester (who signed with Denver as a college free agent last season) and that the Broncos would utilize Gronk’s entire skill-set this season — not just his blocking ability.
“(We got) him to add into some of our two‐back packages, he fits what we do,” said McCoy. ”What we’ve done in the past, whether it’s here or in Carolina, we’re more of a two‐back offense. He’s that fullback you’re looking for.”
Gronkowski’s role won’t be limited to smashing through A and B gaps on goal line situations*, he’s more versatile than your everyday I-formation fullback. ”We can flex him out a little bit,” continued McCoy, “and he’s athletic enough to expand the formations and he’s got some position flexibility if you don’t want to just lineup in the I‐formation all day long that we can move him around.”
*A and B gaps are the areas between the center and guard and guard and tackle respectively (graphic). In goal line situations, Dive and Power runs through these gaps are two of the most popular runs from the I-formation.
Film from Gronkowski’s rookie season shows that the Cowboys used him most often as a blocking fullback (often kicking out defensive ends on running plays and pass protecting on passing plays), but Dallas also utilized his receiving ability. During his rookie year, Gronkowski caught seven passes for 35 yards and a score.
Even in a pass-happy offense led by quarterback Peyton Manning, the Broncos won’t abandon their successful rushing attack, or eliminate fullbacks from their offense. Fox and Manning both prefer fullbacks.
“I know (Manning) always wanted a fullback,” Gronkowski told media members on Friday, “that’s what they told me when I got to Indy (last season), so they brought me in here and I hope I do what he expects.”
Gronkowski’s flexibility that McCoy mentioned goes beyond being a receiving threat, as Gronk can also provide protection to Manning in single-back formations. When it’s third-and-six and McGahee needs a breather, would you rather have a rookie in Ronnie Hillman (who needs to work on his blocking) or a fullback — who blocks for a living — protecting your quarterback?
With Manning coming off multiple neck surgeries, the Broncos will want to protect him better than Indianapolis’ Donald Brown did two years ago. If Gronkowshi pass protects as effectively as he did for quarterback Tony Romo in Week 15 two years ago when he blew up Redskin’s linebacker London Fletcher, Manning will be in good hands.
Gronkowski will get an opportunity to earn a role in Denver’s offense this summer. Whether his role is that of a traditional fullback, receiver out of the backfield or something else, Gronkowski will be ready for it.
“You just have to go in there every day and go hard,” said Gronkowski. “You’ve got to have that mentality.”
Yes, the Broncos will likely throw more often than they did last season with Manning now under center, but they’ll still have a commitment to the run and they’ll still use a fullback. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. After all, these are not the Indianapolis Broncos.