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Peter King
September 03, 2001
No team in the NFL has mastered the running game as the Broncos have—and nobody else has matched their success
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September 03, 2001

Denver's Way

No team in the NFL has mastered the running game as the Broncos have—and nobody else has matched their success

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The rest of the offense is constructed similarly. "We don't have prima donnas," Gibbs said in a rare interview. "We have workers." Proletariat, unite. Denver's starting offense doesn't have so much as a first-round draft pick.

Building a wall. The starting offensive line last year was on average at least 15 pounds per man lighter than any other in the league (chart, page 102), with none of the five linemen weighing more than 290. It's an NFL line right out of 1975: well-conditioned so the players are fresher than most other lines in the fourth quarter. Apprentices don't play much for a year or two but are vigorously tutored by the demanding Gibbs and line coach Rick Dennison. "It's the most technically sound line I've coached against," says New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett, an eight-year NFL veteran.

The line has a second-round draft pick (left guard Lennie Friedman), a third-rounder (right guard Dan Neil), two seventh-rounders (left tackle Trey Teague and center Tom Nalen) and an undrafted free agent (right tackle Matt Lepsis). The Lepsis story is a classic. A marginal 6'4", 260-pound tight end out of Colorado, Lepsis had his hopes of being drafted crushed at the Senior Bowl in January 1997 when he tore his right ACL. However, Rick Neuheisel, Colorado's coach at the time, suggested to Shanahan that Lepsis was worth a look because of his quick feet and wide frame. "He had the kind of feet we look for in a tackle," says Shanahan.

Denver locked up Lepsis in April '97 for the bargain-basement signing bonus of $15,000, supervised the rehabilitation of his knee mat year, sent him to play in NFL Europe in '98 and schooled him for another year under Gibbs before his first start, in 1999. Now he is one of the best right tackles in the league. Lepsis is an average run blocker, an excellent pass blocker and one of the best in the league at cut blocking—diving at a defensive lineman's legs on plays to the opposite side of the field. "We're all basically the same on this line: hungry guys who, for the most part, nobody wanted," Lepsis says. "When you're in the position I was in, you have to do it their way, which is the right way."

"These guys know the system well by the time they have to play," says Gibbs. "They're older and wiser. They play when they're ready to play. You pick a guy in the first round, there's pressure to play him right away, and he's not ready."

Getting the blockers and backs in sync. At practice Gibbs, who worked under Woody Hayes at Ohio State for four years, sounds like Hayes, with a little Patton mixed in. Before a recent training-camp drill against the defense, he got his line together and said in his raspy voice, "Gotta go to war, men! This is how championships are won. Right here, on the practice field. Nothing cheap out there, but if it moves on defense, knock the doo-doo out of it." When rookie center Ben Hamilton, a fourth-round pick out of Minnesota, lagged on one play, Gibbs got in his face and screamed, "War! War! War! Do you understand?! You're too nice, kid!" When Hamilton and fellow backups Jay Leeuwenburg and Steve Herndon let a defender through, Gibbs told them they were "a f——— disgrace to football."

Because Gibbs teaches zone blocking (each man is responsible for keeping an area clear rather than blocking a single defender), it's important that the linemen play error-free. If a Bronco blocks the wrong guy, a defender is likely to have an open lane to the backfield. It's not as important for the linemen to blow defenders off the ball as it is for them to hold their ground and move opponents out of the rush lanes—and, when necessary, to cut-block and to do it well. While defensive linemen detest cut blocking because it causes knee injuries, it's legal. When a Denver ballcarrier runs left, Lepsis, the right tackle, pivots and moves left, lunging for the thighs of a left defensive tackle. "It's a pain, and I hate it," says San Diego Chargers defensive tackle John Parrella, "but Denver's great at it."

Last December, when the Broncos played the Saints, who have one of the best run defenses in the league, Anderson ran left a lot and Lepsis tangled repeatedly with Pro Bowl defensive tackle La'Roi Glover. On tape you can see Glover hesitate whenever the play went left. "You try to block it out of your mind," Glover says, "but you can't help but be leery. You know you're going to be cut." Denver rushed for 283 yards, with Anderson getting a career-high 251 in a 38-23 victory.

Gibbs, 60, says that by last year he had become so obsessed with football that he began feeling depressed. So at the end of the season he walked away. Sort of. He coached at camp and tutored Dennison, a former Bronco who has been on the staff since 1995. During the season Gibbs plans to commute from his home in the Phoenix area to Denver to help with the weekly game plan on Tuesday and Wednesday, but he'll spend the rest of the week away from football. So important is Gibbs that Shanahan is keeping him on the payroll, at more than $200,000 a year.

For the backs the instructions are simple: No rushes for losses. Get to the line, make one cut, then go. Get upfield, break a tackle, fall forward. The ballcarriers, particularly Davis, chafe at the suggestion that, in this system, you could plug in any back and he'd gain 1,000 yards. They're right. Denver's three backs are powerful and shifty, with a trait that all first-rate runners have: On each carry they usually get at least a yard more than they should. They're also better athletes than most predraft evaluations said they were. On Anderson's 80-yard gallop in Seattle, the last man with a chance to tackle him was speedy cornerback Shawn Springs, who appeared to have the angle as he closed from the middle of the field. But Springs underestimated how fast Anderson is. Anderson shifted into another gear, and Springs could only flail at the back's ankles.

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