Denver Broncos: Maurice Jones-Drew

Broncos free agency primer: RB

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
With the countdown to free agency in its final hours, it's time to conclude the week-long look at the Denver Broncos' top needs in the open market.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos will lean on second-year player Montee Ball to be the lead running back in 2014.
The Broncos are expected to be aggressive and active once the signings formally begin Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and have already taken a long look at Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward, as well as linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (he signed with the Indianapolis Colts). Their executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has repeatedly made clear he believes free agency is the time to shop for need and the draft is the time to secure potential long-term Broncos who were the best picks on the board when their picks arrived.

Plenty of folks around the league say they expect the Broncos to buzz in early for some specific targets and then back off to finish out with shorter-term deals weeks later after the initial waves of signings have passed. It was a profile they used last season when they moved quickly to sign Louis Vasquez, Wes Welker, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and then waited to add players like Shaun Phillips, Stewart Bradley, Quentin Jammer and Steve Vallos.

Today: Running back

Why it's an issue: It's took Knowshon Moreno five seasons, two knee surgeries, a pile of ups and downs to go with a teetering roster spot when the Broncos opened 2013 training camp, but in the '13 season Moreno was everything the team hoped he would be all along.

He led the team in rushing, with 1,038 yards, scored 13 touchdowns overall, caught 60 passes and was the go-to guy at the position when it came to pass protection. Moreno was also the poster-child for perseverance and hard work in the team's running backs room.

He's also not expected back. Moreno is an unrestricted free agent and there is at least some feeling inside the Broncos' complex, they got every ounce of what Moreno had to give this past season. And that Montee Ball, selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, is ready to move to the front of the line.

Ball closed out last season with 120 carries for 559 yards while steadily improving his work as a receiver and as a pass protector when working out of the backfield in the team's three-wide receiver set. The Broncos want him to be the guy, and Ball has done the work to show them he wants to be the guy, too.

However, the Broncos need some depth, especially if they can't kickstart Ronnie Hillman. Hillman went from being handed the starting job last offseason to what the team considered pouting his way down the stretch when he was often a game-day inactive.

Hillman is the potential big-play guy at the position and still has a pile of un-tapped potential, but he has to show something in the offseason work as the Broncos' patience will wear thin if they don't see an uptick in both performance and preparation.

The Broncos had undrafted rookie C.J. Anderson on the roster last season, as well. And Anderson is a bigger back, but is seen as a rotation/situational player at the moment.

The best out there: Teams are not really looking -- ever -- to break the bank on older running backs in free agency, so there is at least a scenario where Moreno returns to the Broncos on a short-term -- one- or two-year deal -- if he doesn't find anything in the open market to his liking.

Overall, however, the Texans' Ben Tate, the Colts' Donald Brown, the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew, the Raiders' Darren McFadden, the Raiders' Rashad Jennings, the Patriots' LeGarrette Blount, the Giants' Andre Brown, the Steelers Jonathan Dwyer, the Vikings' Toby Gerhart, the Steelers' Felix Jones and the Buccaneers' Brian Leonard lead what is a class full of question marks and plenty of injury history.

The 25-year-old Tate is the youngest of that group with the least wear and tear, but he also wants No. 1 back money and has already dubbed himself "elite" as the market was set to open. Jones-Drew is a former No. 1 coming off two injury-marred seasons, while Jones had just 48 carries for the Steelers last season and did not show the big-play speed he had when the Cowboys made him a first-round selection.

The rest of the backs in the groups, especially Blount, have flashed at times, but the Broncos aren't looking for a potential No. 1, but rather a back who can support their homegrown No. 1. The draft also factors in with the coming rookie class with some depth in the middle rounds for those willing to live with some growing pains that come with a younger player.

Bottom line: Free agency has not been kind to this high-impact position. As a result, the Broncos, with Ball set to be the lead guy, will take a look for a player who can take some carries from time to time and function in the team's offense, but they have bigger needs with bigger dollars to spend elsewhere on the depth chart.

Broncos Rewind: Defense, special teams

October, 15, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a season when they have largely kept the pedal to the metal and largely overwhelmed those in front of them with the league’s highest scoring offense, things were a little more difficult than some expected this past Sunday.

But after a long look at the win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, here are some thoughts on the Denver Broncos' defense and special teams:
  • Champ Bailey returned to the lineup in a game that mattered for the first time since the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Ravens last January. And in his first game action since injuring his left foot in an Aug. 17 preseason loss to Seattle, Bailey played 70 of the Broncos’ 72 plays on defense, leaving the field briefly after a bloody nose following a first half tackle. Bailey said his conditioning was fine -- “if I’m out there I feel like I’m ready to go" -- but several pro personnel executives around the league who viewed the game video said they believed Bailey showed some slight rust. They offered Bailey’s positioning and technique were good much of the time, but that he did find himself having surrendered a bigger cushion to the Jaguars receivers than he may have had he played over the first six weeks. The Jaguars did certainly try to test him. Bailey was targeted plenty and he finished with a team-high three passes defensed in the game. “I felt good, I can be better, I know that," Bailey said. “I look to be better."
  • Play as much man coverage as the Broncos do in this era of pass-happy offenses and a rules book that severely limits the ability of defensive backs to play with a physical edge in close quarters, eventually somebody is going to test you with the slant. Especially if the defensive backs give any room at all to the inside of the field -- some quarterbacks will call it “beating the outside shade." The Jaguars repeatedly worked the ball to the wide receivers, even after one of the Jaguars’ best receivers running the route -- Cecil Shorts -- left the game with a shoulder injury, with the slant route. It takes an accurate quarterback to make it work and the Jaguars’ quarterback Chad Henne is an experienced hand and he repeatedly got the ball to the right place, largely muting the Broncos’ pass rush along the way. If the Broncos are going to single up in coverage that often, their defensive backs may have to close up the gap a bit and force the issue more at the line of scrimmage. There are far more adept quarterbacks left on the schedule, like Andrew Luck, Tom Brady and Philip Rivers (twice), it’s something the Broncos will need to address. Especially if Von Miller’s return doesn’t pump up the pass rush as much as the Broncos hope.
  • In the rush to go faster that seems to have invaded every offensive huddle in the league, it’s slightly intriguing to have watched opposing offenses try to work that way in Denver thus far. The Broncos believe it is an advantage for their own offense to go at warp speed at 5,280 feet worth of elevation. That gameday life in the thin air will eventually catch up the defenses trying to stop them. But it has also caught up to opposing offenses trying to push the pace as well. The Jaguars shifted into high gear on several occasions, but had instances when they had to dial it down in the same series and it was evident some of the players in the huddle were affected by the altitude in those bursts. It is a small sample size after just four home games, but it may prevent the Broncos defense, at least at home anyway, from having to consistently play at the pace offenses would go elsewhere.
  • The learning curve can be a difficult one at times for rookies in the NFL. And though many other positions are in the life-as-a-rookie discussions far more, rookies in the interior of the defensive line often find some tough sledding in their first seasons. NFL linemen are stronger, smarter and far more versed in the art of close-quarters mayhem than the linemen they faced in college. And once a defensive tackle gets pushed off the spot he finds it far more difficult to use his athleticism to get back in the play as easily as he did at this time the year before. Case in point for Broncos rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams came in the third quarter on a 5-yard touchdown run by Maurice Jones-Drew. Williams, lined up in between the Jaguars’ right guard Uche Nwaneri and rookie right tackle Austin Pasztor, came off the ball and didn’t hold his ground. Williams got folded down inside, turned by Pasztor toward the middle of the field and Jones-Drew took the ball right in behind crossing the goal line before safety Duke Ihenacho, who hit Jones-Drew too high to stop the sturdy back’s momentum, could make the tackle.
  • As the third quarter drew to a close, Broncos defensive tackle/end Malik Jackson lived the more-you-can-do mantra that always increases a player’s value on a 53-man roster. Jackson has earned increasingly more playing time because he can function at end if he has to and still has the strength and athleticism to make plays on the interior as well. In a three-play span Sunday, Jackson had two sacks and tackled Jones-Drew for a 1-yard loss on a running play. But it was his second sack that showcased the skillset defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio talks about when asked why Jackson has played more. In a three-man front on a third-and-18 for the Jaguars, Jackson lined up directly over center Brad Meester. But at the snap Jackson came out of his stance a looped behind left end Shaun Phillips. Phillips took a double team with him and Jackson came free on the outside to sack Henne for a 5-yard loss.
  • In a season when the Broncos special teams units already had returned a kickoff, a punt and a blocked punt for touchdowns, the group made another momentum-changing play Sunday. And since special teams are a cross-section of the roster, the play worked because two defensive players handled their business when called upon to play with an offensive flair. Safety David Bruton, one of the fastest players on the team, took a direct snap 35 yards for a first down and he was sprung free on the play because linebacker Nate Irving sealed off the left side with a quality, no-nonsense block to give Bruton the room he needed. Earlier in the game the group also showed quality discipline when they quickly sniffed out, and stopped a Jaguars fake punt in the first quarter. “We has studied and prepared, we were alert right there, even though it was early in the game,’’ Bruton said.

Broncos-Jaguars matchup of the day

October, 12, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Yes, the Jacksonville Jaguars sport a touchdown-challenged offense – the Jaguars have scored just five this season – and, yes, they enter Sunday’s game against the Broncos as one of the biggest underdogs in decades.

But any sliver of hope of an upset will entail plenty of Broncos turnovers, a special-teams gaffe or two by Denver and the Jaguars’ ability to play keep-away on offense. And Jacksonville’s ability to keep the ball away from Peyton Manning and the rest of the Broncos' high-powered offense will hinge on how much room they can make for running back Maurice Jones-Drew against a Broncos base defense that will have backup middle linebacker Paris Lenon in it.

Lenon is expected to be in the lineup for the injured Wesley Woodyard, who did not practice this week because of a neck injury.

The Jaguars are one of a smattering of teams that actually carries a fullback on the roster, and they play out of a two-back set plenty. And despite the fact they have trailed so often this season, often by multiple touchdowns, they have continued to try to get the ball in Jones-Drew’s hands. He’s tied for 12th in the league in carries at 74, but hasn't seen much success with many of those.

The Jaguars, who lost left tackle Luke Joeckel for the rest of the season last Sunday, have struggled up front, and Jones-Drew is averaging just 2.3 yards per carry.

Opposing offenses, especially in the preseason, have moved the ball in the run game against the Broncos' base 4-3 look. It’s just that the Broncos haven’t let teams settle into much of a run-game rhythm because of the way they put up points on offense. That has forced opponents to spend much of the time in catch-up mode, trying to throw their way out of trouble.

But if the Jaguars can tip the tempo at least a little, it will be because the Broncos don’t keep Jones-Drew in check.

“He’s pretty special,’’ said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the Jaguars' former head coach. “ … He’s had a tremendous career. I’m so proud of him.’’

Lenon was a late signing by the Broncos -- Aug. 20 -- and the savvy 35-year-old settled into the Broncos' defense quickly. He knows offense and is reliable in reading his keys. Lenon can’t quite close to the ball as quickly as the fleet Woodyard can, but the Broncos are comfortable enough with Lenon’s play that they won’t have to dial back anything they’d like to do.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has only been sacked a league-low five times. This is happening despite All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady being on injured reserve, a center who never started an NFL game at the position until this season, and playing out of a wide-open, three-wide receiver look most of the time.

It is all a combination of how the offensive line has played, including Manny Ramirez at center as well as Clady’s replacement, Chris Clark. But it is also because the Broncos keep opposing defenses off balance with both Adam Gase's play-calling and Manning’s ability to draw defensive players offside and keep them from settling in up front.

“You’ll see the defense not set on the field,’’ said Jaguars coach Gus Bradley.

Already this season opposing defenses have been flagged twice for offside, five times for neutral zone infractions and three times for encroachment.

Manning has also gotten rid of the ball quickly so far, on his way to 20 touchdowns and a 75.8 percent completion rate. In fact, according to ESPN’s Stats and Information, Manning is the fastest quarterback in the league this season. He is averaging 2.8 seconds before releasing a pass -- Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Chargers’ Philip Rivers, are both average 2.9 seconds. The Bengals’ Andy Dalton is next at three seconds.

“Peyton knows what he wants to do with the ball,’’ said Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. “Those kind of guys are hard to get to because they already know where they’re going before the snap.’’
  • Cornerback Chris Harris was held out of Wednesday’s practice per the league’s concussion protocol. The policy reads if a player passes a cognitive test on Monday he can usually return to a full practice on Friday if he remains symptom free. Harris, who has started in place of Bailey thus far this season, wore his helmet during Wednesday’s practice, but while his teammates were in full gear for the practice – as is customary for Wednesday practice for the Broncos – Harris did not have any pads on. However, following practice Harris said he was not experiencing any symptoms. “It was just a hard hit,’’ Harris said. “ … But they take concussions really seriously as soon as they tell me, as soon as they get me cleared, I’ll be ready to go.’’ Harris said he remains confident he will play Sunday against the Jaguars. And with Bailey having practiced fully Wednesday for the first time since he suffered a left foot injury on Aug. 17, the Broncos could have their secondary at full strength for the first time this season.
  • The Jaguars struggles on offense have limited running back Maurice Jones-Drew’s impact thus far. Jones-Drew, who won the league’s rushing title in 2011, has rushed for just 208 yards this season on 2.8 yards per carry. But Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who signed with the team in free agency after four seasons with the Jaguars, said Jones-Drew should still be on the Broncos' minds this week. “He can do everything as a back,’’ Knighton said. “He can block, he can run, he can catch out of the backfield, a smaller back, hides behind his blockers … a lot of people like to compare him to [the Saints’ Darren] Sproles, but [Jones-Drew] is a totally different back … more of a power back. If you try to peek and find him, he’ll find that gap and expose you.’’ The Jaguars have trailed in games for virtually the entire time they’ve been on the field this season, so Jones-Drew has had just two games with more than 15 carries – 19 in the loss to Seattle and 17 in the loss Sunday to St. Louis. His 70 yards rushing against the Rams were a season best. “He’s a tough guy to tackle,’’ said Broncos safety Rahim Moore. “He’s stout, he’s strong.’’
  • In case you may have missed it, the Broncos are a substantial favorite in Sunday’s game. And it would be hard to miss it given how much attention it's gotten already this week. At one point Wednesday, Broncos coach John Fox showed his weariness with it as well when he offered; “I think Gus Bradley has done a terrific job. I know they’re going to get sick and tired of hearing the same things I’m getting sick and tired of hearing.’’ Fox has also broken out a little piece of Broncos’ history to make his point to players this week as well. Fox was the Giants’ defensive coordinator when the 13-0 Broncos played in Giants Stadium in 1998. The Giants won the game, 20-16. “In ’98 we had a 15-0 (sic) Broncos team that was a 15-point favorite coming into Giants Stadium,’’ Fox said. “They left with a loss … [The Jaguars] have beaten us, I think, four out of the last five times we’ve played, the last three in a row. So, there’s nobody here taking anybody lightly.’’
  • Manning on point spreads: “It’s completely irrelevant to me.’’