The Broncos’ running game starts with Phillip Lindsay, who needs 63 yards to reach 1,000. It is a role he has earned.
But as the Broncos (6-6) begin the final quarter of their season Sunday at San Francisco, don’t sleep on fellow rookie Royce Freeman.
If the Broncos play the kind of game they want Sunday – run/pass to get a lead and run to close out the game — Freeman will be critical. Although he lost a fumble, he gained 48 yards on 12 carries in last week’s win at Cincinnati.
“He obviously had a bad fumble that we don’t want, but he ran downhill,” coach Vance Joseph said.
In coach-speak, “downhill” is short for running with power and in a bad mood.
“I’m going out there trying to run like I know how and imposing my will on the defense,” Freeman said.
Freeman’s role could grow moving forward. Without receiver Emmanuel Sanders (torn Achilles), the Broncos should experiment with a Freeman-Lindsay and Freeman-Devontae Booker personnel packages. Get Lindsay and Booker lined up outside for easy completions and have Freeman serve as the inside battering ram.
Since we are not in an era of 25-carry games being the norm in the NFL (only 18 this year), having a running back tandem is required and it’s what the Broncos envisioned during training camp.
And it has developed that way … kind of. The Broncos are one of eight teams that have two players with at least 96 carries (Lindsay 154 and Freeman 96).
But the thought during August was those totals would be reversed. Freeman, as the third-round pick whose pounding style would suit him to the NFL, would lead the way and Lindsay would be the change-of-pace guy.
Freeman, though, has led the Broncos in carries only twice and one game was at Baltimore when Lindsay was ejected for throwing a punch in the first half. Lindsay has proven to be equally effective running between the tackles as he is getting around the corner.
Lindsay was beginning to take over the top role when Freeman sustained a sprained ankle in the Week 7 win at Arizona and missed two games. In his three games since returning, he has 25 carries for 87 yards (he has 397 yards this season). He is an important player, but currently a complementary one.
“I think (returning from the injury) was more of a mental thing,” Freeman said. “Just the practices and doing things over and over again to get my feet under me again has been a positive.”
This is new territory for Freeman.
At Oregon, he played in 51 of a possible 53 games. For the Broncos, he’s missed two of 12 games.
At Oregon, he averaged 18.6 carries per game. For the Broncos, he’s averaging 9.6 carries per game.
Playing for the Ducks, Freeman knew he would get plenty of time to find a rhythm. Now, he may get one attempt per possession to make an impact.
“If you start pressing, you will do things that aren’t ordinary and you won’t run the way you’re used to,” he said. “It’s just sticking to the game plan and your style.”
Freeman’s style is bruising. If the Broncos have a lead in the final six minutes on Sunday, they know he can be counted on to gobble up yards in short chucks to keep the clock moving. But he also has 12 carries of at least 10 yards.
“Royce is feeling more and more confident on his ankle,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “We’re looking forward to implementing him more as he gets more healthy.”