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Montee Ball moves from 1A to 1 -- for now

8/26/2013

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Fumbles dropped Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman down the depth chart a bit Monday as rookie Montee Ball took most of the work with the starting offense during practice.

Hillman got a smattering of snaps with the starters in specific situations, but he has lost a fumble that has been returned for a touchdown in each of the past two games -- 106 yards by the Seahawks’ Brandon Browner and 13 yards by the Rams’ Alec Ogletree this past Saturday. The Broncos have often used backs in the No. 1 and No. 1A slots in recent seasons, so coach John Fox wasn’t ready to name Ball the unquestioned starter.

“I wouldn’t read too much into that, whoever we keep, we’re going to lean on and play, and I think our track record says that,’’ Fox said.

Ball himself lost a fumble midway through the practice when linebacker Wesley Woodyard ripped the ball free. Much like when Hillman had turned his back on the Rams defenders to push for an extra yard or two even as he exposed the ball Saturday night, Ball did the same in Monday’s practice when Woodyard ripped the ball out. And the jury is most decidedly still out on how all this will look in the regular season.

Running backs coach Eric Studesville and offensive coordinator Adam Gase have consistently said pass protection, handling the audibles in the offense without mistakes and hanging on to the ball will rank more highly than actually running with the football when the team makes the rotation at running back. And in reality Monday’s move should not, at this point, cause fantasy football owners to jump on Ball’s stock. The Broncos are certainly trying to get Hillman’s attention at this point, but he is also the lone breakaway back in the offense and can produce the kind of impact plays in the run game Gase has said are a must.

There is also the matter that since the start of the 1999 season, nine different running backs have led the Broncos in carries for at least one season. Over that 14-year span Denver has not had a running back lead the team in carries in three consecutive seasons. And the Broncos have had just one running back in the past six years -- Willis McGahee in 2011 when the Broncos went to a read-option offense -- finish a season with at least 1,000 yards.