Denver Broncos rookies finding success behind improved line

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Denver's offensive line has been a concern since the Broncos rode into history as Super Bowl 50 champions.

Much scrutiny was placed on the quarterback in recent years, but the offensive line hasn't held up its end of the bargain, either. Through two weeks, though, there's reason for hope. The Broncos, for the first time since 2015, might have a decent offensive line.

Undrafted rookie sensation Phillip Lindsay is grabbing the headlines -- rightfully so -- but he's not doing it alone. Denver is benefiting from individual success that is starting to come together along the front five.

It's not there quite yet -- we'll get into that momentarily -- but there are signs the Broncos could sustain the early success they've found. While the passing game is succeeding in shotgun sets and short drops designed to get the ball out quickly, a lot of the ground effort has to do with a zone scheme that's working, in part, because of the vision and explosion of Lindsay.

After all, it wouldn't be Denver football without a zone scheme featuring an unheralded back, would it?

In Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks, Lindsay and Royce Freeman each rushed 15 times for 71 yards, largely finding success with the aforementioned zone scheme. A key through Denver's first two games has been the blocking of lesser-known players like tight end Jeff Heuermann.

Here, against the Seahawks, Heuermann's job is to seal the edge so Freeman can get out to the perimeter.

Rookie Shaquem Griffin reads the play and attempts to shoot inside Heuermann, but the tight end does an excellent job of first engaging Griffin, then shuffling his feet quick enough to re-establish a firm base, maintain the block and seal the edge for Freeman.

With good also comes the bad. On the very next play, Heuermann -- a former Ohio State Buckeye -- is beaten inside by a former Michigan Wolverine, Frank Clark, who blows up an inside run attempt for no gain.

The two plays are indicative of the volatile play of the young tight end and how Denver isn't there yet, but has a chance to be, eventually.

The zone scheme is really where Lindsay shines, thanks to his ability to set up defenders for his blockers and his explosive, jumpy running style. While Lindsay operates like a waterbug, his linemen serve as the lily pads.

On this zone misdirection, Lindsay finds the hole and sets up linebacker Bobby Wagner to get blindsided by Garrett Bolles. The big left tackle first helps Ron Leary inside, and then follows his zone path to identify, target and meet Wagner. The patient Lindsay bursts off Bolles' backside, then breaks another tackle for a gain of 11.

Plays like this make Lindsay an exciting back to watch. Execution like this trap play makes the running back an intriguing player to watch moving forward because of its potential versatility.

In a classic, up-the-gut play, Leary pulls to the right to trap Tom Johnson, who did him a favor by falling down outside of the hole. In a bit of offensive line beauty, a closer look shows right guard Connor McGovern fakes a zone step to the right before immediately moving inside to block down and avoid Johnson. The trick works and Johnson dives in an attempt to blow up a zone play that wasn't.

Jared Veldheer then moves to the second level and successfully blocks linebacker Austin Calitro, springing Lindsay for an 11-yard gain.

A week later, Denver methodically clawed its way back from a double-digit deficit with the help of its run game. Down by nine with less than nine minutes to play, the Broncos repeatedly went to Lindsay as each member of the Denver line had his moment to shine.

First, it was Leary and Bolles clearing a hole for Lindsay and fullback Andy Janovich effectively reaching the second level. Leary took Hurst where he wanted to go -- inside -- and kept him there, while Bolles took a gassed Arden Key upfield and inside a couple of yards, creating a crease for Lindsay.

Denver can also lull opponents to sleep with this rushing attack and strike in unexpected fashion. On a play in Week 2 against the Raiders, Case Keenum ran the read option, Bruce Irvin crashed down and Keenum had room to run thanks to a game's worth of zone runs leading Oakland to again read zone right.

The final two key blocks on the ground in what was eventually a comeback win came moments later. The first was about as good as it gets for a draw play.

Center Matt Paradis engages and turns defensive tackle Brian Price, achieving his goal before driving him out of the gap entirely. Meanwhile, Leary moves to the second level untouched, engages Tahir Whitehead and walls him off. To Leary's right is Janovich, blocking Marquel Lee. And all the way over to the left is Bolles, taking care of Irvin.

If it wasn't for the two safeties, Lindsay scores on this run.

He comes a yard shy of pay dirt a minute later in what will be our final play, highlighted by the excellent job by Heuermann, who pulls from the wingback position into a hole on the other side of the line. The hole was extra wide thanks to the efforts of Leary and Paradis, with Leary bulldozing Price a clear gap over to the right.

Heuermann doesn't blow up Whitehead, but blocks him enough for Lindsay to zoom past him to the doorstep.

Paradis was just as important a play later, scraping off a double team on fourth-and-goal to stonewall Whitehead, who was attempting to fill the A gap as it became clear Keenum was running a QB draw out of the shotgun. Whitehead never touched Keenum, who dove across the goal line (and dangerously into Paradis' legs) for the key touchdown.

If Denver can continue to do this on a weekly basis, we will keep hearing about the successes of Lindsay and Co. And consider this: The Broncos found much of this success in Week 2 without starting right tackle Jared Veldheer, who left due to injury.

They'll get a decent test in Week 3 against Baltimore, with a lot of that depending on the status of linebacker C.J. Mosley.

Baltimore ranks right in the middle of the league, 16th, against the run through two weeks -- but only one of those games came against a quality opponent. Cincinnati's Joe Mixon finished off that game with an impressive ground performance, rushing 21 times for 84 yards, but the better comparison to Lindsay is Giovani Bernard, who averaged 4.5 yards per carry on just six attempts.

"I thought it was OK. Not great," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Baltimore's run defense against Cincinnati. "Needs to be better. Not to our standards. I think all our guys would probably echo that. We have a high, high standard. Might be good enough for other teams around the league, but it's not going to be good enough for us."

A higher dose of a similar back behind an improving offensive line could spell trouble for the Ravens -- and more success for the Broncos.

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