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Broncos, Steelers can still run the ball in pass-happy NFL

8:00 AM ET

Jeff Legwold
ESPN Senior Writer 

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the NFL's current climate of pass early, pass often, and then pass again, the Denver Broncos will get another look at a throw-first offense this weekend that can also still pull the hammer out of the toolbox.

Much like the high-flying Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, the Pittsburgh Steelers can flip the run switch when they decide it's necessary. And in that regard, they are similar to the Broncos, who believe there is still a time and place to pound the rock.

"A lot of is [quarterback Ben Roethlisberger], he changes a lot at the line of scrimmage, so there are plenty of times when what they do is based on what he sees," Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. "But they've had games when they're all in running the ball and I think if they think you're vulnerable to the pass they just want to kill you there. If you're not vulnerable to the pass, or you keep things even for a bit, they run it and run it some more."

The Broncos can appreciate that, given some of their best work on offense this season has come in the run game. They have led the league in yards per carry for much of the season -- they are currently No. 1 at 5.2 -- and they have been a top-10 rushing team.

The Steelers are down the list, at 26th (97.7 yards per game), but when they decide they're going to run, they do it with plenty of purpose. They've been a decidedly either-or type offense in that regard. The Steelers have three games with at least 30 carries and three games with 13 or fewer carries, including just 11 rushing attempts in their win over the Jacksonville Jaguars this past Sunday.

And while Roethlisberger leads the league in pass attempts -- 41.6 per game -- the Steelers have kept James Conner busy enough to be third in the league in rushing after Sunday's games with 796 yards.

"Teams like the Rams, the Steelers, Chiefs, they can decide they're going to come at you," said Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. "They are explosive with quarterbacks and receivers, but when they want to pound you, they can pound you. And sometimes when you have some success slowing them down passing the ball, they come at you. I think those are tough offenses the ones that can just go from throwing the ball and turn it around and then come at you when your personnel might be for the pass."

The Broncos have felt the sting of that on defense. In Weeks 5 and 6, the New York Jets and the Rams rushed for 323 and 270 yards, respectively, and they did it largely against the Broncos' nickel package (five defensive backs). The Jets' Sam Darnold and the Rams' Jared Goff threw for 198 and 201 yards, respectively, in those games but the Broncos' defense still never really had its collective balance.

The Broncos have surrendered more than 98 yards rushing this season just three times, but those three games left such a big dent in their overall defensive numbers -- 142 rushing yards allowed in their first meeting with the Chiefs to go with the Jets and Rams -- that they are ranked 26th overall against the run.

After Sunday's game, the Broncos will have faced four of the league's top five in rushing -- Conner, Todd Gurley, Kareem Hunt and Melvin Gordon. Toss in Arizona's David Johnson and Houston's Lamar Miller and the Broncos will have faced six of the top 15 rushers.

The Broncos have returned the favor with their rookie duo of Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman doing the bulk of the work. Lindsay is eighth in the league in rushing (670 yards) while the two have combined for 10 rushing touchdowns.

"I think the run game, even in this climate of passing and what the passing game is now, still allows you to control the game," Joseph said. " ... It's still important. Because if you can't stop the run, it makes it impossible for the [defensive] playcaller, you have almost no options. Stopping the run still allows you to dictate some on defense."

Three decades ago former Steelers offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, a longtime NFL assistant who was also on Bill Parcells' Giants staff for two Super Bowl wins, described offense in the NFL as "throw to score, run to win." And even as Sean McVay, Andy Reid, Sean Payton and others all push the envelope, they can still "come at you when they want to" as Marshall said.

"[The Steelers] have that ability when they want to use it," Joseph said. "It's based on who they're playing, and against us I could see them trying to pound it a little bit to keep the rush out. But there are weeks, you see it, they simply decide, we're going to pound you until you stop it."
Let's make sure Peezy doesn't get shot.