The Denver Broncos, who have run the football better than anyone in the NFL since Mike Shanahan took over as head coach in 1995, couldn't get anything going on the ground against the Houston Texans in their first preseason game. Both of Denver's frontrunners for the starting tailback job, Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell, struggled against Houston. Anderson, who started, gained 12 yards on six carries. Bell came in after the starters took a seat and gained 11 yards on eight carries.
It was Anderson's first game back after missing all of last season with a groin injury.
"I got to get timing, get that feel back," Anderson said. I went down on some shoestring tackles and I usually don't do that."
With Quentin Griffin being held out as he recovers from knee surgery and Maurice Clarett remaining in Denver while he rehabs a groin injury, Ron Dayne took advantage of his extra playing time.
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said Dayne, the former first-round pick of the Giants who signed with the Broncos in April, was the only running back who stood out against the Texans.
Dayne rushed for 56 yards on 11 carries and had a 23-yard gain. Dayne, who rarely was used in the passing game in college at Wisconsin, also had a nifty one-handed catch on a screen pass.
Dayne, who had a great preseason last year with the Giants, fell out of favor after a solid rookie season and never became a full-time starter during his days in New York.
"I feel like I haven't played football in five years," Dayne said. "Just being out there and running and catching and blocking, it feels good."
Bell probably took a slight step back in the tailback battle with his performance against the Texans. He gained only five yards on his final seven carries. Even worse, he fumbled after getting hit on a short catch. Bell has dealt with fumbling problems before in his career.
However, leading into the preseason opener the Broncos' coaches were happy with Bell's progress. They said he practiced well but Anderson simply had played well enough to hold him off.
"I'm real pleased with (Bell's) work and I'm real pleased he's been on the field every day, no knicks or bumps," Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said.
Anderson will remain the starter until Bell or maybe even Dayne does enough to pass him. Anderson is reliable and a tough runner that fits the Broncos' offense well. Bell's advantage is his game-changing speed, but he hasn't gotten many chances to show it off during camp.
The Broncos have a couple more weeks to evaluate the battle. It will probably be decided before the team's final preseason game, because the Broncos very rarely play any starters in their last exhibition game.
"Mike Anderson is making everybody raise their level of play, and Tatum is in there battling," Kubiak said. "The whole camp will tell (who starts)."
-- Rookie running back Maurice Clarett hasn't had a great training camp. The Broncos surprised almost everybody when they took the controversial Clarett in the third round of April's draft, and he hasn't lived up to that draft status.
Clarett has battled a groin injury in camp and was left home to rehab the injury when the Broncos traveled to Houston for joint practices and their preseason opener against the Texans. An MRI on Clarett's groin showed no torn muscles.
Clarett is fifth on the depth chart at tailback.
"If you don't play, you can't move up the depth chart," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "The main thing we have to do is get him ready."
-- The Broncos had rookie Paul Ernster kick off in their preseason opener. Ernster, who is stuck behind Todd Sauerbrun at punter and Jason Elam at placekicker, did not blow anyone away with his performance against the Texans.
His first kickoff went to the 9-yard line, his second kickoff went to the 10-yard line and his third bounced at the 5-yard line and went into the end zone. Sauerbrun kicked off in the fourth quarter but neither of his two kickoffs went in the end zone.
The Broncos have said they would consider keeping Ernster as a kickoff specialist if he can consistently get touchbacks on his kickoffs.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Defensive end Trevor Pryce might find himself standing up on occasion this year.
The Broncos have used one of their ends as a defensive end/linebacker hybrid in their nickel defense a few times during camp. They showed that look in joint practices against the Texans.
Pryce can either drop and cover or rush the passer from that standing position.
"I like it a lot," Pryce said. "I've played defensive tackle, defensive end, now add outside linebacker. Before you know, I'll be playing safety."
--DT Luther Elliss played exclusively in passing situations in Denver's first preseason game. Elliss has been injured often the past few years, but if the Broncos keep him healthy by limiting his snaps he could be effective rushing the passer.
--DE Ebenezer Ekuban moved from weak-side end to the strong side to fill in for Courtney Brown, who will miss about a month with a dislocated elbow. Ekuban moved from the second-team defense to the first team with the position switch.
--OLT Cornell Green started Denver's first preseason game and played nearly the entire game. Green was filling in for Matt Lepsis, who had a hamstring injury.
--DT Monsanto Pope got plenty of playing time in Denver's preseason opener because of some injuries at tackle. Gerard Warren and Mario Fatafehi each missed the first preseason game. Pope was a starter last year but has been working with the second-team defense in this year's training camp.
--QB Matt Mauck has a slight edge on veteran Danny Kanell for the team's No. 3 quarterback spot. Mauck, who threw a touchdown in Denver's first preseason game, might not make the roster, however. The Broncos have carried only two quarterbacks each of the past two seasons.
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Around the League - Monday, Aug. 15, 2005
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