CHARLOTTE -- In the old days, the Denver Broncos could get by with just about anyone at running back.
They're testing that hypothesis to its ridiculous extreme this season, while putting together a passing attack that's more than taking up the slack.
The Broncos will be on running back No. 6 this weekend, when once-cut Tatum Bell lines up. South Carolina's Cory Boyd, just plucked from the practice squad, might get a chance to be No. 7.
"It's always a challenge, but that's the National Football League," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "People are going to go down, but you have to have people step up and play at a certain level and we've had that.
"We expect that, whichever direction we go by game time, depending on how they practice this week, we expect the same thing out of those backs."
If it wasn't so wreck-on-the-interstate impossible to not watch, you'd simply wince at the mere mention of what's happened at the position.
It started in the preseason, when rookie free agent Anthony Alridge went down. He was going to make the team, but a sprain in his foot landed him on injured reserve. On Oct. 5, Selvin Young suffered a severe groin pull, and played a few snaps on Nov. 6 since, with one carry for two yards.
Nov. 3 was the big day, when they put Andre Hall (broken left hand) and Michael Pittman (neck sprain) on IR. They had signed Pittman in May, after Travis Henry was slow to heal from a hamstring problem. They cut Henry just before he was suspended for the year, saving themselves that headache.
On Nov. 10, Ryan Torian blew out his left ACL in Cleveland. The following day, they signed Bell (after trading him to Detroit in 2007), but were hoping to use fullback Peyton Hillis as the primary ball-carrier.
That looked good, too, as his yardage totals were going up each week, culminating with a 129-yard day in the win at the N.Y. Jets. But he fell victim to the curse, suffering a torn hamstring last week, earning him a seat at the trainer's table.
Still, the Panthers are leery of what they can do on the ground, because of their tradition as much as recent results.
Though they're 16th in the league with 113.1 yards per game, the Broncos boast 11 individual 1,000-yard rushing seasons since 1995, tied with Indianapolis for the most.
"I don't want to say any running back can go there and do well, that would be disrespectful to the running backs who have been there," Panthers linebacker Na'il Diggs said. "But the core of the running backs that Denver has had, they've all been standout running backs, their line, their offense makes the running back an exceptional player regardless of who it is. You can go down the list of guys who have played in that system and done very well.
"It's a tough scheme to play and you've got to be fundamentally tight on everything you do, from play one to the last play of the game, all it takes is for one guy to fall to the ground and the guy is gone. That's the scheme that Shanahan loves, that's the scheme he is known for, and that's the scheme he'll always run. They have done it very, very well and it's lethal. So we've got to understand that and go out there and be ready for their best shot."
Of course, the Broncos best shots have come through the air. They're third in the league in passing (280.5 per game), and have flourished with strong-armed Jay Cutler and wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The pair, who came in together in the 2006 draft, have connected for 83 receptions for 1,033 yards and six touchdowns.
"We hit the ground running as soon as we touched foot in Denver," Marshall said. "Just having so much in common on and off the field helps us a lot as far as what we do and as far as being on the same page on the field."
The Broncos have more weapons than Marshall. Rookie Eddie Royal didn't take long to win a job (and make free agent pickup Keary Colbert obsolete), and has added 69 catches for 799 yards and five touchdowns. Marshall added high praise for the precocious speedster, their second-round pick from Virginia Tech,
"I compare him to a Steve Smith," Marshall said. "Steve is definitely a little bit more explosive than him. He's probably a little thicker. They are also probably the most explosive guys and playmakers in this league at wide receiver. Their ability to go up and get the ball and play like they are 6-5, separates them from the pack. And they are fast."
They also have productive tight ends (Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham), and a third receiver in Brandon Stokley who can create matchup problems if he's well enough to play after missing time with a heel injury.
Asked about combating a Panthers' secondary that's sprung leaks lately, Marshall said it's going to take a collective effort.
"It is going to take for us to have a successful running game and spread the ball out to really be able to move the ball on these guys," Marshall said. "Their defense is one of the best in the league and their corners are crafty veterans. Look at Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas and some of the things they have been able to accomplish this year. The way they read routes during the game.
"If we want to beat these guys, we are going to have to spread the ball out and everyone is going to have to do their part."
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