Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno straight arms Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis in the second quarter. More photos.
Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno straight arms Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis in the second quarter. More photos. (Steve Nehf, The Denver Post)

When folks sift through the Denver Broncos loss to Baltimore on Saturday, it will be big plays that get most of the attention. The 70 yard missle-shot up the sideline here. The misplayed ball there. The interceptions, fumbles and returns for touchdowns.

But how the Broncos fared on some of the smallest plays of the day, the ones that needed to cover just one or two yards, also had a lot to say in the outcome.

They also say a lot about what the Broncos' offense needs to address for 2013.

The Broncos faced six situations in the game of third-and-2 or less when they tried to run the ball Saturday. They had one third-and-2 and five third-and-1s.

They converted just three of those plays.

That left three drives on the table when they had to cover 36 or 72 inches with a running play and couldn't do it.

Either the Denver offensive line couldn't get it blocked, or their running backs couldn't break tackles. But the offense won't be all it needs to be until the Broncos can run the ball when they want to, especially in end-of-game situations or when they need a short conversion to keep the ball.

They don't have to dominate in the run game, but they do have to be functional. And being unable to convert more than three times when you run the ball on third-and-2 or third-and-1 is not being functional.

The Broncos lost their best inside runner when Willis McGahee injured his knee against San Diego and then lost McGahee's backup, Knowshon Moreno, to a knee injury Saturday.

And the offensive line with a backup center, Dan Koppen, and right guard Chris Kuper having missed nine full games this season and played on special teams only in two others, couldn't carve out enough room in the middle of the field.

Ronnie Hillman converted his only third-and-1 chance with a 1-yard run, but the Broncos didn't convert a third-and-2 and didn't convert two third-and-1s when Jacob Hester, a player the team signed Nov. 26, carried the ball.

One of those plays was wiped out by a Kuper penalty that pushed the Broncos hack 10 more yards.

But it's clear, even with Peyton Manning at quarterback, the Broncos will need to address their run game in the coming draft and free agency seasons. Because with all that went on Saturday night, if the Broncos could have gained a yard or two when they really needed to, they would still be playing this weekend.

Jeff Legwold: jlegwold@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jeff_legwold