ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The first glimpse of Broncos practice early Tuesday afternoon was exactly what the team wanted to see: Willis McGahee, in uniform, helmet on, going through pre-practice stretching.
But any idea as to whether he’ll play against the Jets on Thursday will have to wait.
“He was limited and we feel he’ll be day to day,” Broncos coach John Fox said after practice. “When he gets cleared he’ll either be full for the game or not.”
Jets coach Rex Ryan made clear his feelings on McGahee’s status.
“I hope he needs to rest this week and decides not to play,” Ryan said. “He looks good.”
With McGahee limited and Knowshon Moreno out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Lance Ball led the running backs as they went through their early-practice drills.
The short week would seem to affect Ball more than most other Broncos, since he was just 48 hours removed from a 30-rush afternoon that was unlike anything he’d ever experienced as a professional.
“I don’t feel too bad,” said Ball, whose carry total Sunday was five higher than his total from the season’s first eight games. “Of course, I’m a little sore here and there, but you’ve got to be professional and take care of yourself.”
Behind Ball, Jeremiah Johnson went through his first practice since being re-promoted from the practice squad. While the Broncos considered other options before promoting him to the 53-man roster Monday, his season-long experience in the Broncos’ now-unusual running scheme made him the best choice, Fox said.
“The good thing about Jeremiah is he’s been with us, albeit on the practice squad. He knows our terminology and he’s helped to make our run defense better and he’s shown a lot as a service squad guy,” Fox said. “He deserves the opportunity.”
Johnson averaged 4.0 yards on 16 preseason carries this year; his 64-yard total ranked fourth on the team for the exhibition slate behind Ball, Moreno and Brandon Minor. His per-carry average was second among running backs behind Moreno’s 4.9.
NO MATTER WHO RUNS THE FOOTBALL it would be a shock if the Broncos don’t continue the ground-heavy game plans that have defined their play since the 45-10 shellacking at the hands of the Detroit Lions 16 days ago.
The wrinkles of the Broncos’ run game might change again Thursday after adding the triple option to their playbook in advance of the 17-10 win over the Chiefs last Sunday, but there is little doubt that the Broncos will run early, run often and run until it no longer works.
“It’s just something that has been working for us right now and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Ball said. “We’re going with what’s comfortable right now and it’s been working.”
At this point, there’s little to hide about the Broncos’ plan. They know they’re going to run the football. The Jets know it. Everyone in the Sports Authority Field grandstands and television audience knows it, too.
“If you’ve got someone across the way knowing that you’re going to run the ball right at them, of course, you’ve got to have a mindset saying, ‘I’m going to win this’ and take it to them,” Ball said.
Added left guard Zane Beadles: “We know we’re going to go out and commit to the run and up front we obviously want to run it efficiently, so it’s going out there and just playing with that mindset.”
IF ONE WAS TO JUDGE BY THE REPUTATION OF RECENT YEARS, it would seem that running against the Jets is a more formidable challenge than the Broncos faced against the Raiders and Chiefs.
“I don’t think anybody wakes up thinking, ‘Yeah, I’ll hold onto the ball and run at Bart Scott, Dave Harris & Calvin Pace.’ That doesn’t sound like a fun Sunday,” said Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. “I’d rather throw it.”
Although the Jets have been decent against the run, they haven’t been the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens, either. Their average of 116.0 rushing yards allowed per game ranks 15th in the league; their per-carry average of 4.0 yards against them ranks eighth, and is tied with the Broncos and Jaguars.
If you throw out their games against the Tebow-led, option-heavy Broncos, the Raiders and Chiefs would rank eighth and 18th, respectively, in rushing defense. Oakland’s defense held opponents to 99.2 rushing yards per game in their other eight games; Kansas City’s limited foes to 120.3.
What is different is what the Jets will likely do to counter the option: exotic formations, motion, disguised zone coverages. They will almost certainly try to confuse Tebow and the entire Broncos offense, who will need to focus on what they can do, not what the Jets will fling at them.
“We’ve got to go out there and just play, play quick, don’t let them set there and read us, just go out there and have them try to defend us,” Ball said.
“Any team we face from now on is going to know what we have on offense. We just have to go in there and execute. We can’t worry about who we’re playing, or how good they are. We just go in there and execute.”