Perhaps I was being too hasty when I wrote about the “death of the fullback” in March after the Broncos let Spencer Larsen go, leaving only the untested Austin Sylvester at the position on the roster.
In the months that followed, the Broncos traded for fullback Chris Gronkowski — the brother of ex-Broncos tight end Dan and Patriots Pro Bowler Rob — and found out that their running game, still in a state of transition to the Peyton Manning offense, still works better when power is needed with a fullback paving the way.
The Broncos chose to expand the fullback’s work Sunday after a Gronkowski block helped spring Willis McGahee for Denver’s only touchdown against Seattle on Aug. 18. The use wasn’t frequent — the Broncos only lined up with a fullback on 15 of 69 plays, supplementing that with a cameo for tight end Virgil Green at H-back.
But it was responsible for the Broncos’ best runs of the day.
With a fullback, Broncos running backs gained 48 yards on 13 carries, an average of 3.7 yards per rush. Their rushing average on plays without a fullback was just 2.2 yards (24 yards on 11 carries).
Denver’s only two runs of more than 10 yards came with fullbacks providing the key blocks: Gronkowski on McGahee’s 12-yard first-quarter gain and Sylvester on Hillman’s 14-yard fourth-quarter pickup.
Of course, if the Broncos are to keep opponents off-balance, they will have to pass out of fullback formations. Of the 15 times the Broncos used Gronkowski or Sylvester on Sunday, they only passed twice.
Still, if the running game is 68 percent more productive with a fullback than without one — as was the case Sunday — it’s hard to imagine the Broncos will go into the season without one on the 53-man roster, and that is almost certain to be Gronkowski, on whose eight plays of work the Broncos averaged 4.1 yards per carry — and gained 16 yards on a pass from Caleb Hanie to Eric Decker. That’s acceptable, drive-sustaining production — and it justifies the continued inclusion of the fullback on the roster.