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Old reliable McGahee the guru of ground-bound Broncos

by | CBSSports.com
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The joke's been on Willis McGahee since he walked into the Broncos running backs room for the first time in late July.

Then on the cusp of 30, an age when many at his position are beginning to see their workloads cut and/or productivity decline, McGahee came to Denver as a free agent from Baltimore and was initiated into a group whose combined experience couldn't approach his individual timeline that began in Buffalo in 2003.

Backfield mate Lance Ball still calls McGahee 'O.G.' -- for Old Guy.

Running back Jeremiah Johnson goes a step further, putting a 'Triple-O.G.' tag on McGahee, for a really Old Guy, especially since McGahee frequently will bring up his days at the University of Miami in the late '90s and early '00s, a time when most of his new running mates were finishing middle school.

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"We'll ask him about playing with certain people and they're already retired. It's pretty funny," said Johnson, a second-year pro. "Or he'll be hurting and we'd tell him he's ready for his cane."

Position coach Eric Studesville sometimes refers to his meetings as his 'entertainment for the day.'

It's easy to enjoy the ride when McGahee and Co. can move the chains as well as they deliver spot-on comic material.

Denver enters the playoffs as the No. 1 ranked ground attack in the NFL, led by McGahee's seven individual 100-yard rushing games that tied Houston's Arian Foster for the most in the league.

The Broncos set a team record with 2,632 rushing yards (164.5 ypg), by closing the season with the most productive 12-game stretch in team history and fourth-best streak of a dozen contests by any team rushing the ball since 1980.

That success almost certainly will have to play a part if the slumping Broncos (8-8) are to upset visiting Pittsburgh (12-4) on Sunday afternoon in the weekend's final AFC Wild Card Game.

"It's definitely helped us get to where we are," coach John Fox said of his ground attack, adding, "We've improved every week. And we're doing it against loaded boxes, which is why we need to get the other phase of our offense rolling."

Still, it was made clear right from the start of camp that Denver was going to return to its running roots under the new coaching regime, long before the switch to Tim Tebow was made at quarterback.

"A lot of running the football is mindset," Fox said. "And our guys have bought into it."

McGahee has led the way with his ability to run patiently, let his blockers wall off defenders, then find positive yardage by powering forward or executing cutback runs. The dual threat of Tebow as a ball-carrier, with a franchise-record 660 rushing yards at QB, has helped, too. But it's when McGahee has been healthy that the Broncos run game has operated at peak levels.

Now officially 30, McGahee has had to battle through a couple different hamstring issues, an ankle problem and a hand injury in gaining 1,199 yards. That performance allowed him to join Ricky Watters (San Francisco/Philadelphia/Seattle) as the only backs in league history with 1,000-yard seasons for three different franchises.

"The guy works hard," right tackle Orlando Franklin said. "He's always here; he's doing rehab all the time. He's doing treatment. He's always looking to get better, whether it's in the ice tub, whether it's watching film, whether it's running extra gassers. He definitely works hard, and he proves it on the field."

Willis McGahee has given the Broncos more than anyone expected. (US Presswire)  
Willis McGahee has given the Broncos more than anyone expected. (US Presswire)  
The Steelers defense will be one of the ultimate proving grounds. Led by coordinator Dick LeBeau, that group has been a gold standard in recent seasons in taking away opponents' strengths. Pittsburgh ranked eighth overall in rush defense at 99.8 yards allowed and has held nine opponents under 100 yards this season.

Yet, in the three games in which Pittsburgh allowed a triple-digit individual rushing performance, the team went just 1-2.

At the same time, the Steelers were No. 1 in points allowed at just 14.2 per game and gave up the fewest total yards weekly (271.8).

"It's going to be a battle of field position," McGahee predicted. "They've got a good defense. Coach LeBeau is going to do a great job coaching them up. We've just got to move the ball."

The Steelers' physical style coupled with an increase in playoff speed and intensity won't be a shocker for McGahee, even if it may for some of his running mates.

That's one of the advantages of being an 'O.G.' or 'Triple-O.G.'. McGahee's faced Pittsburgh with Buffalo (2003-06) and twice yearly, at least, with Baltimore (2007-10). Experience like that matters on a youthful Denver team with limited postseason experience.

"I can't prepare them," McGahee said of the scouting report he'll deliver to his younger teammates. "They've got to prepare themselves. I can just tell them what it's going to be like. I can't go out and run a route for them or pass block for them. I can just tell them, 'Look, don't loaf.'"

It's difficult to even consider slacking off when the ball's constantly being placed in the arms of the Broncos' backs. Denver's attempted no fewer than 30 rushing attempts in 11 straight games, including 102 total attempts in the two-game series with Kansas City -- 47 in Denver's third straight loss last Sunday.

Denver's running game this season has been an amalgam of various concepts hatched by offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, with zone-blocking, power-based and option-read principles intertwined.

The biggest constant has been McGahee, who has 33 carries of 10-plus yards in the regular season. Pittsburgh's only allowed 34 such big plays as a team in 2011.

Denver has perhaps its best chance at an upset if this O.G. can produce some OMG moments.

"It's going to be a battle: David and Goliath," Johnson said. "We're already the underdogs. Pittsburgh's not a pushover. They know how to play the game and these guys have won Super Bowls, so they know how to get there. We know they're going to come out 1000 percent.

"We just have to go 1003 percent and just run hard."

Hopefully with any canes tucked safely in the locker room.

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