Broncos' offense, led by Russell Wilson, faces a central question – USA TODAY

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Joe Thomas remembers exactly when and where the outside zone run game finally clicked for he and his Cleveland Browns teammates in 2014.
The moment: Coming out of the halftime locker room, during the regular-season opener at Pittsburgh. The day to that point had gone, well, terribly. Under first-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Browns fell behind the Steelers 27-3.
Cleveland went 54 yards on its opening drive and settled for a field goal before punting five straight times to end the first half. Only one of the five featured a first down and the offense struggled to just 47 yards.
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Bad news for a group that, as Thomas, the future Hall of Fame offensive lineman and current NFL Network analyst recalls, had a tough training camp and preseason trying to pick up Shanahan’s offensive philosophy.
“Early on in camp, we looked terrible. We couldn’t get a yard against our defense,” he told USA TODAY Sports recently.
Instead of throwing up his hands and putting the ball in the air in the second half, however, Shanahan doubled down on the run game.
“Kyle just said, ‘Screw it, we’re going to run the ball almost every play, we’re going to play as fast as we possibly can, we’re going to run no huddle and we’re just going to run outside zone right and left,’” Thomas said.
Cleveland stormed back to tie the game with 11 minutes, 15 seconds remaining only to fall short 30-27. In the process, though, the Browns ran for 191 yards (6.2 per carry) and unlocked the potency of the wide-zone rushing attack.
“All of a sudden it clicks and you feel like you’re invincible almost,” said Thomas, who helped the Browns that day to 288 second-half yards.
Zone running plays are predicated on blockers being responsible for areas rather than specific defenders and aim to use defenders’ goal of controlling gaps against them. The outside zone, in particular, is geared toward stretching a defense horizontally in order to give a running back a clean, one-cut read either off the tight end or vertically up the field.
Several teams will go through a similar first-timers baptismal this weekend when the NFL kicks off regular season play, including coach Nathaniel Hackett’s Denver Broncos on Monday night at Seattle.
Denver played almost none of its starters in the preseason and certainly did not run out anything resembling its full starting offensive line. Quarterback Russell Wilson didn’t see a snap, nor did Denver’s running back duo of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, top wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy or left tackle Garett Bolles, left guard Dalton Risner and center Lloyd Cushenberry. Right guard Quinn Meinerz played a grand total of one series. 
The only work the top group really got outside of regular practice during training camp was a joint practice Aug. 11 against the Dallas Cowboys before the preseason opener. By the time the Broncos land in the Pacific Northwest, that day, as productive as Denver looked, will be a month in the rearview mirror.
So, when does a coach feel certain that his offense has taken root in his players if he doesn’t actually see it on the field against another team?
“Never,” Hackett said recently. “You always want more. You always want them to be more in sync. I don’t think there is ever a specific time where you feel great. You just want to continue to always strive because we are our worst critics, and we want those guys to be perfect all the time. We want them to continually learn, and even when we think that we’re great, there is still more work to be done. That’s never-ending.”
For the players’ part, there is confidence. Cushenberry said last week he thinks the group has made progress and has a good feel for the system. Swing tackle Calvin Anderson, either a sixth man or perhaps the starting right tackle against the Seahawks if Billy Turner (knee) is unavailable, sees a positive in the fact that Denver rushed 25 times for 148 yards against Minnesota in the preseason finale after just 70 yards on 39 attempts the first two weeks.
“The way that we judge or gauge where we’re at is by how the group as a whole is performing, so any time we mix up the pieces, we’re still looking at the entire unit,” Anderson said. “So, if the entire unit’s progress is moving forward, regardless of who’s in there, that’s how we track it. It’s different, I think, than how other coaches look at the unit, but this one is good because we have a lot of interchangeable parts and that’s how they look at it.
“We’ve got coaches that have gone far and gone to the playoffs and played in those big-time games, so they know the pieces move, but the unit still has to produce at a high level.”  
Slow starts, though, can happen. Thomas went through it in 2014. Broncos general manager George Paton, even in praising Hackett’s offseason program and training camp approach, acknowledged that his new head coach was part of a Green Bay team that got steamrolled in its season-opener against New Orleans last year before going 13-4 in the regular season.
Thomas believes that the outside zone-based offense that Shanahan and Rams coach Sean McVay have helped repopularize across the NFL can be difficult to master but then even more difficult to slow down.
“Your traditional gap scheme, drop-back pass, there’s a lot of plays and techniques you need to learn, but it’s play-specific,” he said, “so you learn one play and it’s one set of techniques and then the next play, there’s maybe a little bit of carryover but it’s almost all brand new each time. … I think one of the genius things with the outside zone, whether it’s to the tight end or away from the tight end or with a fullback or no fullback, the techniques are pretty much the same across the board. There’s slight nuances.
“It takes longer to learn one outside zone play than a gap scheme play because of all the details involved, but once you learn one, it carries over. It takes longer to learn, but once you learn it, it’s easier to run your entire offense with a higher level of consistency because there’s not as many concepts that you have to master.”
Which, of course, leads to the central question facing Denver’s offense as Week 1 arrives: Where is the starting unit in that process? Will it click from the start? Perhaps after 30 minutes, like it did for Thomas eight years ago. Maybe it will take several weeks.
Without any live reps so far for the Broncos’ No. 1 offense, there’s only one way to find out.

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