ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -So much for the notion that you could plug anybody into Mike Shanahan's system and he would rush for 1,000 yards.
Injuries and inconsistency have quashed that theory.
The Broncos rank 18th in the NFL in rushing, have just one 100-yard rusher in their last 12 games, and they're well on their way to a second straight season without a 1,000-yard runner, something that happened just once in Shanahan's first 12 seasons in Denver.
Terrell Davis established Denver's trademark ground game by averaging 1,603 yards from 1995-98, while leading the Broncos to their two Super Bowl titles.
He was the perfect running back in Denver's famed zone blocking scheme that quickly became the NFL's blueprint.
``If a running back can stay healthy, I don't think 1,000 yards is that big a deal,'' Shanahan told The Associated Press. ``But you've got to be able to stay healthy. Because you know most teams are shooting for 2,000 yards rushing a year. You've got to have a very special running back and a great running attack to be able to do that.''
The Broncos still have a great, time-tested running scheme, the zone blocking concept of nimble linemen running to certain areas, or ``zones,'' to block for running backs who make one cut upfield rather than ``man'' blocking in a power or trap scheme, which requires linemen to block certain defenders.
``We were one of the first teams to do it initially and after our first Super bowl people started to copy it, and most of the teams do it in the NFL now,'' Shanahan said.
While the scheme remains constant, the Broncos' backfield hasn't.
The Broncos have lost five tailbacks, four of them for the season, plus Selvin Young, who has just one carry since Oct. 5.
After waiving Travis Henry in the offseason, the Broncos have watched Anthony Alridge (leg), Michael Pittman (spinal cord), Ryan Torain (knee) and Andre Hall (hand) go down with season-ending injuries.
Young aggravated his groin injury last week after Torain went down, and the Broncos often turned to an empty backfield with three wide receivers and two tight ends to fuel their 34-30 win over the Browns.
Quarterback Jay Cutler said the Broncos have to find a capable and consistent run game somewhere, somehow if they're to salvage their season.
``That's a given. You have to run the ball and you have to stop the run to win in this league,'' he said. ``We're going to have to find somebody to get it done.''
Here are their options when the Broncos travel to Atlanta on Sunday:
-Peyton Hillis, an athletic, hard-hitting fullback who blocked for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas and who was benched just last month.
-P.J. Pope, who was just promoted off the practice squad.
-Bell, who was signed this week after being out of football since his ugly departure from Detroit on Sept. 2.
-Free agent Alex Haynes, a recently-signed reinforcement.
Just anybody?
``The scheme's very successful,'' Pope said. ``But our running backs coach (Bobby Turner) tells us all the time, 'You have to have some talent. You can't just throw anybody in there.'''
It's not easy joining the 1,000-yard club, even in Denver.
``Everybody always thinks we've got a new back, he's the next 1,000-yard back. It's not like that,'' Bell said.
Falcons coach Mike Smith doesn't see the Broncos' jumbled backfield as any reason to breathe easier.
``Denver has always, with Coach Shanahan, run the ball extremely well,'' Smith said. ``Through the years, there's been a number of running backs and all of them have been very successful. What they do schematically is very difficult to defend.
``We're not really concerning ourselves with who the running back is going to be. We know they're going to have an efficient running attack because that's the way Coach Shanahan-coached teams are.''
Not always: Two weeks ago, the Miami Dolphins limited them to 14 yards on 12 carries, Denver's worst rushing performance in 36 years.
Blame injuries. Last year, it was the offensive line beset by an epidemic of ailments. This year, it's the running backs who are piling up on injured reserve.
That's why Bell is back when it seemed doubtful he'd ever be welcomed into another NFL locker room after security cameras captured him taking two Gucci bags that belonged to his replacement, Rudi Johnson, when he was released by the Lions.
Tom Nalen gave Bell grief when he walked into the Broncos' headquarters this week, telling him, ``Let me check your pockets!''
``So, it's all fun and jokes,'' Bell said.
The Broncos' battered backfield, on the other hand, is no laughing matter.

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