Denver's backs need to serve and protect

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
1:10
PM ET
For the Broncos offense to be everything it wants to be, for its play-caller, Adam Gase, and its quarterback, Peyton Manning, to use all of the pages of the electronic playbook, to stress defenses as much as they all hope to, the three-wide receiver set has to be a big part of things.

Perhaps even the biggest part of things, or they wouldn’t have given a $12 million deal to Wes Welker.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesFor Montee Ball and Denver's running backs, pass protection for QB Peyton Manning will be crucial.
But with all of the dress rehearsals now officially over, and as the fantasy football world spins about which Denver back is going to get the carries in the team’s offense, there is this from the quarterback about the team’s passing game:

“But in the end I still think the passing game starts with protections, it's got to be protection first, because if you’re not on top of your protections, then the pass patterns are kind of a waste of time."

“I think we know we have to understand that," said Broncos rookie running back Montee Ball. “… He’s a future Hall of Famer, and he needs not to be hit."

Which brings us to the bottom line with the Broncos' running back spot. And whether or not anyone chooses to believe it, to potentially be an every-down back in the team’s offense, to get the ball on first, second or third downs, whether it is delivered by handoff or pass, the guy who gets it the most overall this season will eventually be the guy who blocks the best.

That's it. Oh, and the bar is immensely high for that job when you consider how long Manning has played, and with the list of running backs he’s had in the formation with him.

That includes his rookie year when Manning, fresh out of Knoxville, Tenn., lined up as the starter for every game of his inaugural season in Indianapolis. And the running back in the formation with him that year was a Hall of Famer in Marshall Faulk. After you consider what both players’ career statistical lines would have looked like at his point had they played together for more than one season (mind: blown), the fact is Manning said Faulk saw the field like a quarterback. And a really smart quarterback at that.

“It was probably his fifth year, my first year, when I was in Indy," Manning said. “When Marshall went to St. Louis you could tell (former Rams coach) Mike Martz saw the same thing I did that year. But in just in my one year I saw Marshall had just a great knowledge of defenses. Not just holes and seams to run the ball, I’m talking about pre-snap, he’d sit back, standing there next to me in the shotgun and he could tell you this guy is blitzing, he could tell if was man-to-man, give you an alert that he could break out if it was man (coverage).

“Of course your head is spinning as a rookie, but as I’ve played a little longer I’ve learned that wasn’t normal. To not only be so talented, but to go on top of that with that extra, whatever you want to call it, and have that kind of understanding in the cerebral part of the game is pretty special."

It’s why the rotation is on in Denver, why the committee has been convened and why Knowshon Moreno, who sits squarely as the team’s No. 3 back at the moment when it comes to taking handoffs, is the No. 1 choice at the position in pass protection. He’s more consistent, makes more of the right choices and unless one of the youngsters -- Ball or Ronnie Hillman -- improves in that regard, Moreno will be a situational specialist in the backfield.

“To be a complete back you want to be a great runner, a great pass-blocker, somebody who has an understanding of the passing game," Manning said. “… But for any player that’s in there, coordinator calling plays … for a running back, certainly the ones who can do more of what the coaches want to call -- max-protection plays, release-five-guys plays, multiple protections, whatever it is, the more the backs can do, the better it is."

Especially for the backs.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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