ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – After dropping seven of Peyton Manning’s passes against Pittsburgh, the Denver Broncos’ wide receivers found themselves running the “gantlet” drill this week.
They ran from one sideline to the other catching rapid-fire passes from their left and right, a staple of the NFL’s scouting combine every February where prospective pass-catchers show off their good hands.
That wasn’t the only fundamental skill the Broncos worked on as they prepared for Sunday’s AFC championship game against New England.
“I think it will come down to big runs on offense,” Demaryius Thomas said. “We already were talking about that as a group of receivers that we don’t want to just go out there and work on our drops we’ve had. We also want to block in the secondary so the running backs can have running room.
“We can do better than what we’ve been doing. So, we challenge ourselves to go out, make every catch and also block down the field.”
The Broncos know one of the best ways for Manning to win his 17th matchup with Tom Brady is to take pressure off their own QB and keep the Patriots’ passer cooling his cleats on the sideline.
The best way to do that is the grind out yards on the ground.
When these teams played on a snowy Sunday night in November, the Broncos ran for 179 yards, including C.J. Anderson’s 48-yard scamper that won it 30-24 in overtime.
However, 105 of those yards came after Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower left with a knee injury. Hightower is back for the rematch although he’s still bothered by the knee injury and linebacker Jamie Collins has a bad back. Another linebacker, Jerod Mayo, went on IR this week with a shoulder injury.
The Broncos had trouble running the ball early in the season, but once their O-line jelled and the running backs adjusted to coach Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme, things started to come together.
Anderson and Ronnie Hillman combined for a season-best 212 yards against San Diego on Jan. 3 and Anderson had 72 yards and a TD in 15 carries against the Steelers last week.
Both New England and Denver have porous offensive lines but are coming off their best performances of the season. Plus, they have quarterbacks who get rid of the ball lickety-split.
The Broncos also have had bouts of big dropped passes this season. In Denver’s win over the Patriots on Nov. 29, Thomas had five drops and his only catch was a leaping 36-yard grab that ignited the Broncos’ go-ahead drive in the closing minutes of regulation.
Thomas had one of Denver’s seven drops last Sunday, miscues that would have resulted in 82 more yards, not even counting yards after the catch.
Thomas said fans are starting to ask him about the dropped passes.
“I just say, ‘We’ll fix it, we’ll be fine.’ That’s all I say. I don’t really have any conversation with them because I get tired of hearing the questions about the drops,” Thomas said.
The Patriots only had 39 yards rushing in that loss in Denver two months ago. But Brady, more than any other quarterback, has no problem being a one-man show when it comes to moving the ball downfield.
New England rushed for 38 yards on 14 carries in its 27-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round. That 2.7-yard average was identical to the Patriots’ output in last year’s Super Bowl, factoring in Brady’s three kneel-downs, when they gained just 15 percent of their yards on the ground.
The Patriots’ ground game was better than only San Diego’s and Detroit’s this season, and Denver’s top-ranked defense was third in the league against the run.
That doesn’t mean the Broncos aren’t wary of James White, Steven Jackson or Brandon Bolden.
“You definitely can’t just focus on the pass game the whole time, because if you do and you forget about the run they’ll gash you,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “So, it’s a mixture of both. We all know they’re a predominantly passing team. I think they were 30th in the league in rushing. It is what it is. They’re going to pass the ball, but you’ve got to be ready for the run.”
As do the Patriots.
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