ENGLEWOOD—For the first time in weeks the Denver Broncos practiced in pads Thursday.

Why? Head coach Gary Kubiak wants to get the running game going.

The running game is physical in nature. A big man blocking another big man. It’s difficult to practice the running game in jerseys and shorts and shells.

The Broncos ranked 6th in rushing after gaining 148 yards against Carolina in their season opener, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. They moved up to fourth in the NFL following week 2 after they rushed for 134 yards against Indianapolis, albeit at a dip to 4.2 yards per carry.

But after averaging just 2.3 yards per carry at Cincinnati and 2.8 yards last Sunday at Tampa Bay, the Broncos now rank 14th in the league with 105.8 rushing yards per game.

The dropoff coincided with calf injuries to right tackle Donald Stephenson and tight end Virgil Green. Both practiced only on a limited basis this week so it doesn't seem likely either will play much this Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

So on came the pads.

“We have been missing Virgil and Donald. That is not an excuse,’’ Kubiak said, “We have to do it better. It’s an important part of our team. With the way we play defense, if we’re able to run the ball, it makes us a good football team on Sunday. I think we’ve proven that we can throw it around a bit. We have a couple of really good players making plays for us, but we need to be more consistent running the ball. We started the year that way, but didn’t finish the month that way. It will be important down the road.”

Kubiak comes from the Bill Walsh-George Seifert-Mike Shanahan school of coaching that believes in keeping players’ bodies as fresh as possible.

No one in Denver can argue with Kubiak’s methods. He coached the Broncos to the Super Bowl title in his first year and he’s 4-0 so far in his second year.

Still, the running game has slipped in recent victories.

Practicing the running game lies in contradiction to the stay-fresh philosophy. So the Broncos popped their pads on Thursday. If rookie Paxton Lynch makes his first NFL start in place of Trevor Siemian this Sunday against Atlanta, a running game will be vital to keep the Atlanta defense off-balanced.

“It’s another challenge for us this week and we have to answer the bell,’’ said Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, who had 92 and 74 yards in the first two games, on 4.2 yards per carry, but just 37 and 49 yards rushing the past two games on 2.6 yards per. “We haven’t answered the way we wanted to the last two weeks so we’ve got to answer it.”