Denver Broncos: Ronnie Hillman

When Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball arrives Monday morning for the start of the team’s offseason conditioning program, he can expect to carry the expectations of being a starter as he goes about his business.

A task the guy who will hand him the ball in the coming season -- quarterback Peyton Manning -- says Ball is ready to handle. Manning said Wednesday morning, before he made an appearance as the keynote speaker at a fundraising breakfast for the Boy Scouts in Denver, he believes Ball has prepared himself for the job.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Peyton Manning said of Montee Ball.
"There is no question with the loss of Knowshon [Moreno] -- who was just nothing short of awesome for us this past year and was a great teammate -- that Montee is going to have more responsibilities, and I think he will answer that challenge," Manning said. "I think he has the work ethic, I think he has the mental capabilities to handle the workload and I look forward to having a full offseason with him."

Ball, who finished his rookie season with 559 yards rushing and 20 receptions, will be asked to fill the significant role Moreno played in the offense last season. Moreno led the team with 1,038 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, to go with 60 receptions.

Moreno, who signed a one-year deal in Miami, was also the most consistent player in pass protection the Broncos had and that was ultimately why Moreno moved into the starting role last season. The Broncos had used Ronnie Hillman (a third-round pick in 2012) as the No. 1 back through their offseason work last spring and summer, and had begun to take a look at Ball (a second-round pick last April) during training camp for that role as well.

But then Ball missed a blitz pickup in the Broncos’ preseason loss in Seattle, and Bobby Wagner blasted Manning in what was one of the biggest hits Manning has taken in his tenure in Denver. Moreno’s snap count kept increasing following that game and neither Ball nor Hillman could unseat Moreno once the regular season began.

Ball also lost three fumbles in the first 11 games, but showed steady improvement. He didn’t fumble the rest of the way, and the Broncos had slotted him in as the potential starter since season’s end.

"I thought Montee had a great year, I thought he learned a lot in his first year," Manning said. "In my past, I’ve seen a lot of development in guys from their first year to their second year … I look forward to getting even closer with him as far as being on the same page."
INDIANAPOLIS -- First, Ronnie Hillman was awarded the Denver Broncos starting running back job.

Then Hillman had some trouble hanging on to the ball -- including a late fumble in Indianapolis that effectively stifled a comebacker attempt -- as well as the job. The Broncos' third-round pick in the 2012 draft moved down the depth chart and, from the team's perspective, didn't exactly respond to the demotion as they had hoped, or maybe even expected.

So much so Hillman was a game day inactive five times during the regular season as well as all three of the Broncos' playoff games, including Super Bowl XLVIII. He has just two games with more than 10 carries -- 11 carries for 36 yards in the team's win over Philadelphia to go with 12 in the regular-season finale in Oakland -- and after Oct. 20 Hillman had a seven-game stretch when he did not have a carry.

That run included four games when he was an inactive, a game he played in without a carry and a game in which he was in uniform but did not get on the field.

Thursday at the NFL's scouting combine, Broncos head coach John Fox expressed at least some optimism Hillman could rebound in the manner Knowshon Moreno did from both injuries and a demotion. Moreno had his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2013.

"He's had no issues running the ball, he put it on the ground a couple times, like they all do, early in the season and really was in the mix," Fox said. "And we had some other guys -- C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball and Knowshon -- and the way it kind of works out sometimes, there's only so many can get a uniform on game day. He's in that mix, I think he's a tremendous talent, he does give us great explosion as a runner, particularly to the perimeter."

With Moreno an unrestricted free agent who will likely see bigger offers elsewhere, Hillman will get an opportunity through the offseason program to show how he will rebound from his bumpy ride in 2013. Ball is expected to be elevated into the No. 1 role if Moreno moves on and would push for more carries than the 120 he got this past season even if Moreno re-signed with the team.

That leaves Hillman, Anderson and any other future editions to the depth chart to carve up the carries that remain. Hillman and Anderson are the only other backs, other than Ball, currently under contract for next season.

"I know (Hillman) will work really hard this offseason and try to develop and get ready for next year," Fox said.
With the NFL's scouting combine just around the corner and free agency set to follow on March 11, today marks the second installment of a position-a-day look at where the Denver Broncos stand at each spot on the depth chart, the salary-cap commitments and where their needs are greatest.

Today: Running backs. Tomorrow: Wide receivers.

It's slightly odd when a 26-year-old is the elder statesman, but that's exactly what Knowshon Moreno was when the Broncos' running backs gathered in their meeting room this past season. A player who had wrestled with questions about his maturity during his time with the Broncos was suddenly, for both personal progress and performance, the standard to follow.

Or as running backs coach Eric Studesville said: “Knowshon did that, and if the other guys in that room want to see how to handle yourself when it doesn't really go your way, or when it does, they have an example right in front of them.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsWith Knowshon Moreno (not pictured) being a free agent, Montee Ball may need to step into a starting role at running back.
And that's where the questions start for this group and the Broncos -- right at Moreno's immediate future and the readiness of the other players who were in that room with him last season.

The Alpha: It was unquestionably Moreno in 2013, but his contract's up. So Montee Ball may well have to be a heady combination of maturity far beyond that of a typical second-year player and the young legs at the position the Broncos want.

Salary cap: At the moment, three backs under contract for '14 will account for just 1.6 percent of the Broncos' salary cap if the limit comes in at about $126.3 million per team. Ball's cap charge is set to be $787,347, Ronnie Hillman is at $807,708 and C.J. Anderson is set at $499,166.

Pending free agents: Moreno, who was the first draft pick of Josh McDaniels' tenure, is an unrestricted free agent. He's also the only free agent the Broncos have at the position of players who were on the 53-man roster this past season.

Whether to re-sign Moreno will be a difficult choice for the Broncos. Moreno has had two major knee surgeries, including an ACL repair in 2011 to go with a stem-cell procedure last offseason, so while he may be looking for starter money -- and who wouldn't be after rushing for 1,038 yards to go with 60 catches this past season -- the Broncos may hope to keep him, but as a rotational player.

Who could stay: If the league's other personnel executives play it cool with the soon-to-be 27-year-old running back (in July) with a surgical history, Moreno could return to the Broncos. But it's clear they see big things in Ball's future and like the way he rebounded down the stretch. His lost fumble Nov. 24 in New England was his third of the season at that point and there was some consideration to reduce his playing time, but he did not have another fumble the rest of the way and finished as the team's second-leading rusher.

He also improved in pass protection and flashed at least some potential as a receiver.

Who could go: Paging Ronnie Hillman, it's time to snap out of it. Hillman, a third-round pick in the 2012 draft, is still the most explosive big-play threat the Broncos have at the position. But after essentially being handed the starting job through the offseason and into training camp last year, his season dissolved into being a game-day inactive over much of the season's second half, including all three postseason games.

The Broncos have invested a prime draft pick in him, but patience is not a trait any player should rely on, even a draft pick for a team that would like as many homegrown players on its depth chart as possible. The feeling, in house, is that Hillman moped more than a little after his demotion and didn't do all he could to earn some playing time back.

He's still just 22 years old -- he was one of the youngest players in the '12 draft -- and there is plenty of potential, but he'll get a hard look through the offseason and into training camp. If he would like to remain in the league's highest-scoring offense, his on-field actions need to prove that.

What they like/want: With Peyton Manning at quarterback, the position has certainly evolved for the Broncos, even in John Fox's three seasons as head coach. The Broncos now need a back who can function as a primary runner, protect the passer and catch the ball on key third downs.

And, oh, don't fumble or make any assignment errors that get the quarterback hit.

That's a lot to ask and the Broncos figure to either take a look at running backs in the second or third day of the draft or make an economical signing in free agency should Moreno move on.

Need index (1 is low priority, 5 the highest): 3

Moreno was the team's leading rusher in '13 and his 60 catches were fifth in the first 600-point offense in league history. His 13 total touchdowns trailed only wide receiver Demaryius Thomas' 14.

That's plenty of output from a player who may be able to secure a better offer elsewhere. The Broncos certainly believe Ball is ready to be at the front of the line, but they need somebody to be a third-down back and provide a little big-play pop.

Also, this group needs to be ready tackle new challenges because the running game figures to get a tweak or two in the playbook. The Broncos know, even with all of the NFL records they set on offense last season, they need to have more options when an opposing defense or Mother Nature make it difficult for them to throw the ball.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Players with more than one year's worth of experience in the league have long told rookies they have not seen anything quite like postseason football no matter where those first-year players had been the big men on campus.

And now the Denver Broncos first-year players will get to see for themselves Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, some of them in prominent roles.

So, with that in mind here's a playoff look at the Broncos' rookie class:

Running back Montee Ball: When Ball lost a fumble in New England on Nov. 24 -- his third lost fumble of the season to that point -- there was some concern he wouldn't be trustworthy enough to do the job the Broncos hoped he could. The Broncos envisioned Ball spelling Knowshon Moreno and being a front-line option when the Broncos needed him to be. And since that last fumble, he has risen to the task. He has not lost a fumble since and finished the regular season with 559 yards on his 120 carries -- a team-best 4.7 yards per carry among the running backs. Ball also had his three best outings of the season over the season's final five games, including his first career 100-yard effort -- 117 yards in the Dec. 1 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. He's also shown quality work in the passing game as a receiver and improved at least some in pass protection. It means he will be a big part of the rotation in the postseason if things go the way the Broncos want.

Quarterback Zac Dysert: Dysert finished the regular season having been a game day inactive in every game, but he's benefitted from plenty of extra work with quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. And now he gets to see playoff preparation up close with one of the best to ever play the position in the same meeting room. The postseason sessions with Peyton Manning will be yet another valuable reference point for Dysert as he moves forward in his career.

Running back C.J. Anderson: Ball's increased efforts in ball security, as well as Ronnie Hillman's rebound, have limited Anderson's playing time down the stretch. The Broncos went with Hillman as the third running back on game day over the season's final few weeks. Anderson was a game day inactive in four of the final five games and did not get a carry after the Broncos' Nov. 24 loss to the Patriots. If he's going to crack the postseason rotation, he's going to either need the Broncos to keep four backs on the game day roster -- and that's not likely -- or work his way past Hillman in practice at some point.

Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams: When Kevin Vickerson went to injured reserve (hip) following the loss to the Patriots, Williams was forced into far more playing time and he has shown himself to be ready for the increased workload. After not playing more than 19 snaps in any of the Broncos' first 10 games, and the 19 snaps came in Week 2 and Week 7, he has played at least 32 snaps in four of the final six games. He also posted his first two career sacks over the final three weeks and figures prominently in the defensie line rotation. He had five tackles in back-to-back games against the Chargers and Texans in December, including five solo tackles against the Texans. The Broncos need him to be disruptive and active in the middle to force some interior double teams and free up some of the team's rushers on the edge.

Cornerback Kayvon Webster: The last time Webster faced the Chargers, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers made it a point to harass the rookie as much as possible, repeatedly targeting Webster in coverage. Webster also fractured his right thumb in the game and did not play in the Broncos' final two games following surgery. Webster has practiced for the past two weeks with a cast on his hand and looks ready to play. With Champ Bailey back in the lineup and playing in the team's nickel package (five defensive backs), Webster will be looking at mostly special teams work as well as some duty in some of the Broncos' specialty looks on defense, including some snaps in the dime (six defensive backs) or a seven-defensive back look the team often uses in long-yardage situations. Webster showed both his toughness and resiliency in how he handled the injury and the way Rivers had targeted him. The Broncos believe he can contribute in a postseason setting.

Practice squad: Tackle Vinston Painter, a sixth-round pick, was waived in the final cutdown, and defensive end John Youboty, an undrafted free agent who spent training camp with the Broncos, continue to work toward keeping themselves in the plan moving forward. All of the practice squad players have worked in an on-field workout of their own on Mondays as well as some extra time following practice each day, a schedule that included extra work after Monday's practice when all of the other Broncos had already left the field.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

December, 29, 2013

OAKLAND, Calif. -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 34-14 win over the Oakland Raiders:

What it means: The win means quarterback Peyton Manning and the Broncos' offense closed out the regular season with every significant scoring and passing record in their possession. Manning finished the regular season with 5,477 passing yards to go with 55 touchdowns while the Broncos had broken the league scoring record by halftime. Denver also earned home-field advantage throughout the AFC postseason.

Stock watch: This past week Manning was asked about the records the Broncos were poised to break and he quickly said winning was most important. Perhaps in the big picture that is certainly true, but Manning's season, at age 37 and after four neck surgeries, was nothing short of remarkable. It was his first 5,000-yard season in his storied career and, with four more touchdown passes against the Raiders, it was his ninth game of the season with at least four scores thrown.

A tad worrisome: Broncos punter Britton Colquitt had a punt blocked for the first time of his career in the third quarter Sunday. That play kept a rather disturbing trend going on special teams, with poor ball security, some big returns allowed and now a block over the past two months. The Broncos will practice several days during their postseason bye week and it's a sure bet special teams will be a big part of those sessions.

Two-man show: The Broncos tried to get Ronnie Hillman involved in the running game Sunday -- he had 12 carries for 30 yards -- but the Broncos' running game is largely a two-man affair headed into the postseason. Rookie Montee Ball had 72 yards on 10 carries as Knowshon Moreno was largely given the day off (six carries, 23 yards). But Ball and Moreno have turned it into split duty because of their work in the passing game. Manning's first four completions of the game went to Moreno and Ball. And by the time the Broncos had finished their first two scoring drives, Moreno had five catches to go with one for Ball.

What's next: The Broncos will get a weekend off with their bye through the wild-card round. They will try to balance enough work to keep their edge with the idea of getting a fairly battered team a little rest. But after last season's double-overtime loss at home in the divisional round, there will be a big push from the team's veterans to make sure everybody stays on track.

Broncos Rookie Report: Week 13

December, 4, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Injuries, most notably to defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, who went on injured reserve last week after dislocating his right hip against the New England Patriots, as well as a bone bruise to Knowshon Moreno’s right ankle, have pushed some of the Broncos' first-year players into more prominent roles.

And the Broncos are asking all involved to grow up quickly as they prepare for the stretch drive.

So, with that in mind here’s a weekly look at the Broncos’ rookie class:

Running back Montee Ball: With Moreno hurting a bit, Ball was pushed into what was a two-man rotation in the backfield in the win over the Kansas City Chiefs. The result was 13 carries for 117 yards for Ball. It was his first career 100-yard rushing game and the total included a career-best 45-yard run with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter. And while the Broncos were certainly happy with that jaunt, the kind of run from Ball they’ve really wanted to see came on a 28-yard effort with 1:46 to play in the game from the Broncos 13-yard line. That run enabled the Broncos to close things out -- Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning took a knee on the next three plays to end the game -- and is the kind of late-game role they’ve wanted for Ball if he can consistently hang on to the football. In all he played 24 snaps on offense against the Chiefs to go with three on special teams. The Broncos would like to have that kind of participation from him in the weeks ahead.

Quarterback Zac Dysert: Dysert was a game-day inactive against the Chiefs. But this week, because of his abilities as a runner as well as a passer – he was the first FBS player to throw for 500 yards and rush for at least 100 yards in the same game as a senior at Miami of Ohio -- Dysert could help the Broncos defense get a look at a scrambler in practice. Titans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick rushed for 54 yards in the Titans' loss to Indianapolis last Sunday while the Broncos surrendered 46 yards rushing to Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.

Running back C.J. Anderson: After battling his way into some playing time, Anderson was a game-day inactive against the Chiefs and Ronnie Hillman was instead the third running back in uniform. Hillman, however, did not get a snap on offense, but did play four plays on special teams. Anderson was moved down the depth chart after playing 10 snaps on offense in the loss to the Patriots. He had a fumble, that he recovered, and a dropped pass in those 10 snaps. At the moment, it looks to be largely a two-man show at running back in the offense, but Anderson’s only way back for at least the opportunity for some playing time will be to pick up the pace during the week. Unless the Broncos have a change in strategy when they choose their game-day inactives, he and Hillman are now fighting for that No. 3 position.

Defensive tackle Sylvester Williams: The time is now for Williams. Vickerson’s injury moves the rookie into the rotation in the defensive front and the Broncos will need him to be up to the task. After not playing more than 19 snaps on defense in any of the Broncos’ first 10 games, Williams has now played 36 snaps against the Patriots – the game Vickerson was injured – to go with 22 snaps on defense this past Sunday against the Chiefs. Williams finished with one tackle. He will likely rotate with Mitch Unrein at Vickerson’s defensive tackle spot.

Cornerback Kayvon Webster: With Champ Bailey having played just 30 plays in his first game back in the lineup since Oct. 20, Webster played at times in the Broncos’ base, nickel and dime packages as he finished with 50 snaps overall on defense. It marked the second consecutive game, and the third time this season, Webster has played at least 50 plays on defense. He finished with three tackles. His snap count could dip slightly as Bailey plays more in the weeks ahead, but some of that may depend on how often the Broncos choose to play in the nickel and dime looks against opposing offenses. If the Broncos offense carves out a lead in the coming weeks that could force opposing offenses into catch-up mode and put the Broncos in some of their specialty looks, that include Webster, more and more.

Practice squad: Tackle Vinston Painter, a sixth-round pick, was waived in the final cutdown, and defensive end John Youboty, an undrafted free agent who spent training camp with the Broncos, continue to work toward keeping themselves in the plan moving forward. All of the practice squad players have worked in an on-field workout of their own on Mondays as well as some extra time following practice each day.

Manning says he believes in young RBs

November, 27, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno is in his fifth NFL season. In terms of NFL experience, that puts him in the middle of the road in the team’s locker room.

However, when the team’s running backs meet, Moreno has more NFL seasons than the other three in the room combined. And if experience is indeed the best teacher, the Broncos need -- as in really, really need -- those three youngsters in the backfield to learn a little more quickly.

“[It’s] just having confidence in yourself,’’ rookie running back Montee Ball said. “Because you are playing against grown men, it is a different level than college. But it just comes with confidence, just doing your assignment, knowing what to do and playing fast.’’

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsWith starter Knowshon Moreno banged up, the Broncos may lean on rookie Montee Ball on Sunday.
And with Moreno, who missed practice Wednesday with a bone bruise to his right ankle and is still a bit of a question mark for Sunday’s game in Kansas City, the Broncos' run game could now very well be in the hands of three players who have each seen their playing time trimmed at times because they haven’t hung on to the ball well enough. But with Moreno's injury at this point in the football calendar, with the stretch drive waiting, the time is now for Ball, rookie C.J. Anderson, as well as second-year back Ronnie Hillman.

“All those guys are always ready to play each week, no question,’’ quarterback Peyton Manning said following Wednesday’s practice. “... Whoever’s called on to be in there, we’re calling the same plays, we expect them to go in there and do their jobs ... they have to.’’

Ball, Anderson and Hillman have all flashed the ability to impact games and move the chains. But they have also had issues with ball security at times, a glaring problem for a team that has done so much right on offense yet leads the league in lost fumbles with 16. Hillman, who opened training camp as the starter, has not played in a game since fumbling away a touchdown opportunity Oct. 20 in the Broncos’ loss to the Colts.

Ball leads the team's running backs with three lost fumbles, including one in Sunday night’s loss to the Patriots that gave the ball to Tom Brady and the New England offense at the Broncos' 32-yard line early in the third quarter. The play helped the Patriots fuel their comeback from a 24-0 deficit, sparking a 21-point third quarter.

Anderson fumbled in Sunday’s game as well, but was able to reel it in before a Patriots defender arrived.

“Coaches have faith in me,’’ Ball said. “Freak accident, but I’m most definitely not dwelling on it because this team needs me, they need everybody right now to correct the mistakes and move forward.’’

But as the season has gone along, Moreno has largely taken what was once a plan for running back by committee and turned it into a solo act over the past two games due to his reliability and performance. Moreno has consistently been the most reliable back in pass protection and has not lost a fumble in 187 carries or 38 receptions, while Ball has lost a fumble for every 25 carries and Hillman has fumbled twice in 40 carries (Eric Decker recovered Hillman's fumble against Jacksonville in Week 6).

Moreno has also handled the duties required of all of the Broncos’ regulars on offense, that you work quickly and still get it right. The Broncos' playbook is large, Manning routinely makes changes at the line of scrimmage and the team often works in the fast lane out of its no-huddle look.

To that end, Ball has said Manning will often quiz younger players, including Ball, about assignments on specific plays. And once the answer is provided, Ball said, Manning will often ask “Are you sure?’’ Manning said Wednesday the key has been to try to keep the same pace in practice the offense uses on game day.

“We try to treat practice like a game,’’ Manning said. “Maybe you try not to help him out as much during practice as you would in a game to kind of find out ... what you might need to help them with come game time. The test is kind of during the week in practice. Sunday is not a test. I’m not going to not tell you something, hoping that you get it right. That’s a hard way to find out he didn’t know it.’’

The level of confidence the Broncos have in the group behind Moreno will be seen in how the team attacks the Chiefs' defense Sunday, especially if Moreno is limited or not in the lineup. When the two teams met two weeks ago, the Broncos handed the ball to Moreno 27 times, a season high for him until this past Sunday night, when Moreno had 37 carries in the overtime loss.

“We try not to make it bigger than it is, because you don’t want players to play outside their shoes,’’ Ball said. “Because our best is good enough, you do your individual assignment -- for myself, hold on to the ball and keep playing the way I’ve been playing -- and I think we’ll be fine.’’

Broncos Rewind: Offense

November, 26, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Broncos roared through the first six games of the season, piling up the points and wins, Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio often preached composure to his defensive players, that how they went about their business week to week was far more important than getting swept up in the team’s successes.

It is the same tact Del Rio has now taken as he addresses the whole team these days in the wake of Sunday night’s loss in New England. That the players should keep the ebb and flow of opinions about the Broncos’ postseason prospects on the outside and simply get to work inside the building.

“I know everyone is going to ride that roller coaster, last week we’re the greatest, this week not so good,’’ Del Rio said. “We’ll just keep working at it.’’

And after a long look at the video from Sunday night’s loss, here are some thoughts on the team’s offense:

    [+] EnlargeVirgil Green
    AP Photo/Paul SpinelliThe Broncos appear to be gaining trust in tight end Virgil Green.
  • Virgil Green has quietly worked his way into the good graces of quarterback Peyton Manning and the team’s offensive staff. When Julius Thomas was held out of Sunday’s game because of a right knee injury, it was Green who made the start. Some of that was due to the fact Joel Dreessen has dealt with some issues with his left knee since having two surgeries on the knee since last season, including the second after training camp had opened, but it is also due to Green’s combination of strength and athleticism. He is continuing to grow as a blocker at the point of attack and physically may be the strongest player the Broncos have at the position. His footwork and technique, having played in an option-based offense in college, suffers at the point of attack at times such as when he let Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones beat him to the inside to tackle Montee Ball for a 1-yard loss on a first-and-goal play in the first quarter. And that's been an issue at times overall at the position with Thomas' struggles as a blocker (the Broncos often line him up "wrong-footed'' as a blocker in hopes he will get the footwork correct if his right foot is forward more often, as the Broncos try to work with one tight end out of a three-wide look or to throw out of a two-tight end look. Dreessen had some difficulty anchoring in pass protection the previous week against the Chiefs. Overall, though, Manning has said he likes Green as a receiver and Green continues to carve out a niche in the offense. Jacob Tamme, a 50-catch receiver in 2012 for the Broncos, also played plenty in longer down-and-distance situations Sunday night in Thomas' absence, and was in the game quickly, entering on the Broncos’ first third-down play of the evening. Thomas is still the unquestioned starter at the position because of his impact in the passing game, but for the other three the competition for playing time is more heated there than anywhere else on the roster.
  • With defensive tackle Vince Wilfork on injured reserve the Broncos repeatedly pounded away at the middle of the Patriots defensive line with center Manny Ramirez carving out a run lane play after play. The Patriots play lighter in the defensive front with Wilfork out of the lineup and the Broncos repeatedly challenged New England’s front seven in the middle of the field because of it. For the year the Broncos have been spotty in the run game in the middle of the formation – they are averaging 3.71 yards per carry on plays that begin right over Ramirez – but it’s something they want in their scheme. Overall, they have sent 35 percent of their run plays over Ramirez this season and Sunday, after a few weeks of dealing with some knee issues, it paid enormous dividends as Ramirez looked to be feeling better and consistently made space to work.
  • Over the years, and now 21 games against Peyton Manning as either a defensive playcaller or head coach, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has routinely chosen coverage over pressure, often dropping, seven, eight or even nine players into the passing lanes to try and slow Manning down. And Sunday night Belichick consistently did the same and as a result there were multiple times he had linebackers trailing the Broncos’ wide receivers in coverage. Wes Welker had a 5-yard reception in the game when linebacker Dont’a Hightower was matched up on Welker form the snap as linebacker Jamie Collins came from deeper in the pattern to help on the tackle. It’s at least partly why the Broncos found so much room to run in the middle of the field. But the gamble worked overall for Belichick on a frigid, windy night when even 280 yards rushing from the Broncos wasn’t enough to make the Patriots pay for that strategy.
  • It’s fairly easy to see how the plans for a running-back-by-committee backfield has evolved into Knowshon Moreno carries the ball as many times as possible. Because Moreno has had ACL surgery as well as a stem cell procedure on the knee this past offseason the Broncos were thinking more rotations when the preseason ended. The thinking early on had been Moreno, because he was the most reliable in pass protection, would be the back much of the time in the three-wide set, while Ball would play when the team wanted to grind things out and Ronnie Hillman would be a hybrid of the two who could catch the ball out of the backfield and show some big-play pop in the run game. But Moreno has been the only back to consistently hang on to the ball in the run game. He hasn’t lost a fumble in 187 carries this season while Ball has lost a fumble for every 25 carries and Hillman was benched after losing a fumble in Indianapolis. Hillman has fumbled twice in 40 carries, but the Broncos lost just one of those. Sunday, Ball's lost fumble gave the Patriots a short field -- New England took over at the Broncos 32-yard line on their second possession of the second half -- and plenty of momentum when they scored six plays later. C.J. Anderson also fumbled in the game, but scrambled well enough to recover it as well. With Moreno dealing with an ankle injury, the Broncos will need one of the other backs to prove they can hang onto the ball or the offense will suffer as it drifts toward a more one-dimensional look to overcome any lack of production in the run game.
  • The Broncos have put Manning away from center more, either in the shotgun or pistol look (a shallower set with the running back behind him), since he re-aggravated a high-ankle sprain to his right leg in San Diego. Manning was away from center on 65 offensive snaps against the Chiefs two weeks ago – including penalty plays – or 89 percent of the offensive plays. Sunday the Broncos had Manning away from center on a season-high 88 snaps, including penalty plays, or 94.6 percent of the offensive snaps. Manning has worn a heavily-wrapped brace on the right ankle in both games.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –- With the way things have gone for the Denver Broncos' offense in the season's first half, it seems every time Peyton Manning drops back to pass a slice of league history is along for the ride.

The eight-game numbers are, well, ridiculous. Manning's 29 touchdown passes are already more than the total in six of his previous full seasons as a pro. He has more touchdowns passes than any other team in the league has scored overall thus far. And the Broncos' 44 touchdowns -- passing, rushing and returns -- are 17 more than any other team has scored.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesA battered Peyton Manning is counting on backs such as Knowshon Moreno to squeeze more out of the running game when the Broncos return from their bye week.
Yet not only do the Broncos believe there's more to come -- more variety, more ways to stress a defense. If things go the way they hope, they will get a little more impact from their running backs.

"Oh yeah, I think we can bring more," running back Knowshon Moreno said. "I think all of us, as running backs, think there is more we can do in the rest of the season."

Despite the fact the Broncos can rifle passes to players who can win matchups all over the formation, they want to wring a little more out of the run game in the season's second half. And the biggest reason why, even in this pass-first era, is that it's still the best way to protect the guy throwing the ball -- especially if he's a 37-year-old who has had four neck surgeries. Though the Broncos didn't need a reminder of all of that, Manning did arrive to the bye week as a fairly battered player, having taken plenty of heavy shots in the Broncos' last three outings before the week off.

So much so that Manning didn't take part in the team's two practices this week. Overall, Manning has always said few things slow down a defensive front intent on pounding a quarterback than the threat of a running back sprinting into the room left behind.

"And it opens up options, you get the play-action game going ... and have choices," Manning said. "It can open things up, when those linebackers and safeties have to worry about other things."

However, given their injuries up front -- left tackle Ryan Clady is on injured reserve and right tackle Orlando Franklin has missed just under two games -- to go with the fact Manny Ramirez is just eight games into his move from center to guard, the Broncos haven't always been productive when running the ball. The slow start and ball-security issues of two of their young backs, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, haven't helped.

As a result, the Broncos have had 35.9 percent of their rushing attempts this season go for two or fewer yards. That total includes 12 carries for no gain and 12 more for negative yardage.

But it hasn't been for a lack of trying. Like virtually all of the league's upper-tier teams, the Broncos have kept on running, whether it be to protect a lead or as a change of pace. Of the seven teams with at least six wins this season, six are among the league's leaders in rushing attempts. The 49ers (6-2) are first in rushing attempts per game, the Seahawks (7-1) are third, the Broncos (7-1) are sixth, the Chiefs (8-0) and Patriots (6-2) are tied for seventh and the Bengals (6-2) are 10th.

"And we're just going to lean on those guys more and more," Broncos coach John Fox said.

Moreno will continue to be the key for the Broncos, who recently benched Hillman because of a fumble late in the loss in Indianapolis and put rookie C.J. Anderson in the rotation. He joins Ball and Moreno, who's still the best of the group in pass protection, by far, so he's the choice much of the time when the Broncos are in their favored three-wide receiver set.

Moreno is also the most well-versed among the backs in the passing game as a receiver -- he had his first receiving touchdown of the season Sunday in the win over Washington. The Broncos do have to walk the line with his workload. He tore an ACL in 2011 and had another knee procedure this past offseason, which is why they need at least one of the youngsters to step forward in the coming weeks.

"[Moreno] has been a downhill runner, he's caught the ball well out of the backfield, he's been able to keep us, what we call 'keep us in phase'," Manning said. "... He has been stud for us in the first half of the season. We expect him to be better in the second half."

It will be a necessity after the bye, given the last three teams the Broncos faced -- Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Washington -- were far more willing to turn the heat up on Manning. He threw interceptions returned for touchdowns against the Jaguars and Redskins and fumbled on sacks against Indianapolis and Washington. Of the Broncos' first four games following the bye, two are against the Chiefs, who currently lead the league in sacks, and one against the Patriots, who are tied for eighth.

Moreno said whatever the task at hand will be, he's ready to dive in.

"When we get those first downs to keep the ball moving, to get those points on the board, that's all that matters," Moreno said. " ... I think everybody in our [meeting] room feels like that. All the backs, we have a good group of guys, we all know if they ask to do something we have to do it. We have to be a part of it. Peyton is the greatest and our receivers are great, but we have to be ready to when our number comes up."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

October, 27, 2013

DENVER -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 45-21 win over the Washington Redskins:

What it means: The bye week may have come just in time for the Broncos, especially for their 37-year-old quarterback, Peyton Manning. Manning has been battered over the past three games, having taken several heavy shots to body parts including his ribs, right arm and right shoulder to go with injuries to both ankles. Manning put together another four-touchdown day, but it was a struggle at times.

Stock watch: The Broncos have made it clear there is zero tolerance for fumbling, no matter what your potential might be in the offense. They showed it initially with Montee Ball's reduced role earlier this season after he put the ball on the ground and then took the next step with Ronnie Hillman being a game-day inactive Sunday against the Redskins. The Broncos did miss Hillman’s speed at times, but he won’t see the field again until he earns his way back into the lineup, and a big part of it will be how he handles being an inactive this week.

Mix-and-match: With the threat Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III presented as a runner in a read-option look, the Broncos often used a 3-4 set on defense to attempt to keep Griffin hemmed in. On plenty of early-down snaps the Broncos stood up Shaun Phillips and Von Miller at outside linebacker with three down linemen, putting Kevin Vickerson often over the center as the nose tackle. It worked well, as the Broncos repeatedly limited Griffin’s ability to get loose.

Bad timing: The Broncos can’t seem to avoid penalties at times when they will sting the most. Just before halftime the Broncos were flagged for 12 men on the field when the Redskins were lined up for a 30-yard field goal attempt. The penalty gave the Redskins a first down, and they scored a touchdown on the next play. Vickerson, who is the team’s most penalized player, was flagged in the third quarter for a late hit on Griffin. Given his recent run of flags, including a chest bump of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck last week, the Broncos took Vickerson out of the lineup, and at that point head coach John Fox had plenty to say to him.

What’s next: They have a long list of injuries with safety Duke Ihenacho (ankle) and tight end Julius Thomas (ankle) added to the list Sunday, so the Broncos will gladly take the week off to heal. They will likely practice Tuesday and Wednesday as the players head into the bye weekend.

Fumbles put Ronnie Hillman on sideline

October, 25, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The moral of the story is the same for Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman as it has been for every other player in that position group’s meeting room.

Don’t fumble. Or you may not get the ball back.

With the Broncos trying to make a comeback in the closing minutes of what became a 39-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night, Hillman lost the ball on the Colts’ 3-yard line. A score could have potentially cut the Colts' lead to two points at the time.

The fumble, in a season when both Hillman and Montee Ball have had more than their share of troubles with ball security, has cost Hillman a spot on the team’s game day roster against the Washington Redskins. Hillman will be a game day inactive and rookie C.J. Anderson will be in uniform for the first time. Last season Knowshon Moreno was a game day inactive for eight consecutive games after a Week 2 fumble in a loss to Atlanta and only returned to the lineup after Willis McGahee injured his knee.

The most recent move is a departure from the confidence Broncos coach John Fox had expressed in Hillman earlier in the week. When asked about Hillman’s fumble in Indianapolis Fox said:

“If you follow the game and look around the league, most of your top backs have two or three fumbles. It’s not anything you like; it’s not anything we’re happy about. I’m sure if you ask him, he’d probably reply the same. But it’s no different than I feel comfortable having (wide receiver Andre Caldwell) be out there catching the ball. (Hillman) is part of our running back corps -- he actually had some very nice runs in the game.’’

The depth chart adjustment does rob the Broncos of their best big-play potential in run game, given Hillman’s speed. But the coaches have grown increasingly frustrated with the fumbles, especially since Hillman’s was the Broncos’ second lost fumble of the season inside the opponents’ 10-yard line and continue to try to get the message through.

Ball fumbled at the Giants’ 6-yard line in the Broncos’ game-opening possession of the win over New York. Hillman had also fumbled against Jacksonville two weeks ago, but Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker dove into the pile to secure that one. And Hillman lost two fumbles in the preseason, including one into the Seahawks’ endzone that Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner returned 106 yards for a touchdown.

Heading into this week’s games the Broncos running backs were tied for the league lead in lost fumbles by the position group with three – with Green Bay -- and the Broncos’ backs tied for the league lead last season, with Buffalo, with seven lost fumbles.

Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase was asked Thursday how to fix the problem.

“You just keep working him at practice and probably have a lot of guys going after it, especially on defense … And we’ve got to keep working on it. The way that we’re fumbling, it’s just unacceptable. We’ve got to get this fixed and that’s been a big focus for us again this week. Hopefully we can restart everything; we’ve got a fresh week to get to zero turnovers.”

Gase was also asked if Anderson was ready to play after missing time in the preseason and early in the regular season with a severe knee sprain, and said:

“I think so. It’s just depending on whether or not we can get him up. It’s all going to be based off of what Coach Fox wants to do.’’

Anderson made the Broncos roster to start the season as an undrafted rookie.

Upon Further Review: Broncos Week 7

October, 21, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Denver Broncos' 39-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
Thomas J. Russo/USA TODAY SportsRobert Mathis and the Colts were able to sack Broncos QB Peyton Manning four times on Sunday.
Going big: Last regular season, opposing offenses had 38 pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Broncos' defense. After seven games this season, the Broncos have surrendered 40 such pass plays, including five Sunday night. But the last three weeks are of far more concern. Until a Week 5 win over the Cowboys, most of the damage was done when the Broncos sported big leads. But Dallas repeatedly challenged the Broncos downfield in the passing game, especially with tight end Jason Witten. The Cowboys finished with nine pass plays of at least 20 yards and the Colts followed suit as they completed three of their big pass plays to tight ends and running backs Sunday night.

Rush hour: Robert Mathis is not just another guy among the Colts' pass-rushers. He currently leads the NFL with 11.5 sacks, including his two on Sunday night. But after Mathis, you have to go all the way down to 34th to find the next Colts player on the league's sacks list: linebacker Jerrell Freeman, with 3.5. Yet the Colts consistently made trouble for the Broncos' mix-and-match offensive line, sacking Peyton Manning four times -- twice on third down and twice on first down. It may force the Broncos to find a happier medium between their desire to open up the formation with three wide receivers and their need to protect Manning, at least until right tackle Orlando Franklin returns to the lineup.

Shipping and handling: Last season the Broncos' running backs tied for the league lead (with Buffalo) for the position group in lost fumbles with seven. Seven games into this season, it is again an issue. The Broncos are currently tied for the league lead in lost fumbles by running backs with three -- with Green Bay, the Giants and San Diego. If wide receiver Eric Decker hadn’t dove into the pile to secure Ronnie Hillman’s fumble against Jacksonville, Denver would have sole possession of the league lead. And with Hillman’s fumble at the Colts' 3-yard line as the Broncos were trying to close the gap to two points with just over three minutes to play, the Broncos' backs have now lost two fumbles inside their opponent's 10-yard line this season. Montee Ball lost one at the Giants' 6-yard line in Week 2 to finish the Broncos' first possession of that game.

Flag bearer: There is intense, and then there is what defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson did Sunday night. Vickerson had two unsportsmanlike conduct flags in the third quarter -- both for removing his helmet on the field of play -- and an inexplicable roughing the passer penalty in the fourth quarter. Vickerson is one of Denver's veterans on defense, but his seven penalties leads the team.

Locker Room Buzz: Denver Broncos

October, 21, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS -- Observed in the locker room after the Denver Broncos' 39-33 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

Slow start: Broncos linebacker Von Miller waited a long time to play in his first game of the season after serving his six-game suspension. He played in his usual rotations in the Broncos’ base defense and specialty packages, but had limited impact, finishing with two tackles, one of those for a loss. "I feel great, I felt physically and mentally ready to go. They have a great team over there."

Fumbled opportunity: It seems as though every time Ronnie Hillman earns his way back into good graces in the backfield rotation, he has a stumble. Sunday, with the Broncos trailing 39-30 and just more than three minutes to play, Denver was on the doorstep of the end zone before Hillman fumbled at the Colts’ 3-yard line and Indianapolis safety Antoine Bethea recovered. Hillman quietly shook off requests for comment following the game on his way to the bus.

Bailey injured: Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, who missed the first five games of the season with a left foot injury, appeared to have reinjured the foot again Sunday. He was limping noticeably following the game and will be evaluated more Monday after the Broncos get back to Denver.

Protection issues: Quarterback Peyton Manning had been sacked five times in six games combined coming into the night and was sacked four times by the Colts, including two by Robert Mathis. The Broncos' injuries up front seemed to finally catch up with them. Left tackle Ryan Clady is on injured reserve and right tackle Orlando Franklin was sitting out with an ankle injury. The Colts repeatedly pressed the edges, including forcing a fumble and an interception with hits on Manning. "You have to overcome," Manning said.

Broncos Rewind: Offense

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

But after a long look at the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, here are some thoughts on the Broncos' offense:
  • It can be camouflaged at times because of the impact the three wide receivers – Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker – have had this season, but people would be hard-pressed to scan the league’s rosters and find as good a collection of tight ends anywhere. And with all four of the Broncos' tight ends now back, healthy and circulating in the offensive game plan, the offense’s ability to find big plays down the field will improve as defenses have to deal more and more with the big guys in the pattern. The Broncos used all four tight ends – Julius Thomas, Joel Dreessen, Jacob Tamme and Virgil Green – against the Jaguars, with Thomas having played all 74 plays the team had on offense. Dreessen checked in at 19 plays, Green had 15 and Tamme had nine plays. It gives the Broncos the option of playing both big and small within the same personnel grouping. A look with Tamme and Thomas is closer to a three-wide-receiver set, whereas if the Broncos simply want to pound they put Dreessen, Green and Thomas in the formation. They can still put Demaryius Thomas out wide in the three-tight-end set, and with Thomas there it gives them the ability to play a power look with two matchup dilemmas in the pattern in the two Thomases if they want to go with play-action and throw the ball. In the second half Sunday, especially in their two scoring drives after right tackle Orlando Franklin left the game with knee and ankle injuries, the Broncos consistently moved the ball with the group in the lineup.
  • It was just one play, but you have appreciate the texture of quality design from time to time. And when the Broncos were able to convert a third-and-20 on their first possession of Sunday’s game, it was because of what offensive coordinator Adam Gase and the rest of the offensive staff drew up worked just fine. Peyton Manning hit running back Knowshon Moreno with a short dump-off after Moreno had leaked out of the backfield a little late and the Jaguars rushers were already working their way upfield. In a three-wide look, the Broncos had also constructed the pass routes on the play to put the three receivers in position to block for Moreno once he had the ball. So, when Moreno made the catch, the three receivers, already clustered in the middle of the field, simply turned and blocked the defensive back on them in man coverage. The result? Moreno had a clear path to pick up an improbable first down because the Broncos' three wide receivers were willing to roll up their sleeves and block it up for somebody else. “I just caught it and it was open in front of me,’’ Moreno said. “It worked great, those guys just cleared it out.’’
  • Manning has made a Hall of Fame living on playing the percentages against the defenses in front of him because of his otherworldly preparation. But there are times the defense gets a win on a play because they have studied Manning as well. Manning’s interception just before halftime, which Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny returned 59 yards for a touchdown, was a result of Manning trying to jam a ball into a route that has resulted in a pile of big plays over the years, and the Jaguars floated Posluszny into the passing lane just in case Manning tried it. Manning was trying to hit Welker, who was sprinting out of the slot on the left side of the formation. Welker was already essentially doubled, with Jaguars cornerback Mike Harris with inside technique and safety Josh Evans closing on Welker’s outside shoulder. Double coverage, yes, but certainly the kind of pass Manning has fit into similar spaces hundreds of times. But knowing when, and where, on the field and against what look on defense Manning likes to make that throw, the Jaguars then floated Posluszny underneath. The ball was slightly underthrown – Manning called it a “total force’’ – and the interception followed.
  • In reality, the time to make those coveted halftime adjustments is severely limited. At least by the time any injured players get some brief treatment, any uniform issues taken care of and 53 players take care of assorted other things. But the Broncos are money in the offensive bank coming out after halftime thus far, as defenses routinely have given them the same looks they used in the first half. The Broncos have come out after halftime knowing what they want to do and have executed those plans with ruthless efficiency. In six games this season, their first possession of the second half has ended with a touchdown five times and with a field goal once. Sunday was no exception as they opened the second half in their three-wide look for the first six plays of what became a touchdown drive until they went to their heavy package -- three tight ends and two backs, with defensive tackle Mitch Unrein at fullback, from the Jacksonville 1-yard line. “You just get together and decide what could work,’’ Manning said.
  • The Broncos prefer Moreno as the running back in their three-wide-receiver look because of Moreno’s skills in pass protection, but that doesn’t mean they have stuck to the plan when Ronnie Hillman is in the formation. When Moreno has been the back in the three-wide set the Broncos have thrown a little more than 70 percent of the time. When Hillman is the back in the three-wide set the Broncos have thrown the ball 69 percent of the time.

Broncos' Moreno wants to be go-to guy

October, 11, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There was a time when Knowshon Moreno was buried on the Broncos' depth chart, his roster spot sporting more than a few cracks in the foundation.

A time like, say, August.

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezKnowshon Moreno's 331 rushing yards are his highest total since his rookie season -- and he's vital on pass protection to boot.
"I just go to work," Moreno said. "That's all it is. That's what I say, that's all it is, you can't worry, but you can work."

Two months later Moreno is Mr. Reliable, the proverbial hot hand, the veteran sage in a meeting room filled with first- and second-year running backs.

That's a long way from what many inside the Broncos used to say about Moreno when words like "immature," "un-focused" or "attention span" would often crop up.

Moreno tore his ACL in Kansas City in November of 2011, was a game-day inactive eight times last season after a fumble in Atlanta, reinjured the knee in the playoff loss to the Ravens last January and had a stem-cell procedure on the knee in the offseason to try to get ready to play again. Put all that on the pile and Moreno spent much of the offseason looking up at Ronnie Hillman and rookie Montee Ball on the depth chart -- players the Broncos selected in the last two drafts to presumably replace him.

"But whether it was injury, where he was on the depth chart, being inactive, playing time, he handled it such a great way," Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville said. "He did what we always tell people to do, control what you can, come to work every day, prepare yourself and come and do it. He's been rewarded for doing that. That's the example. Don't sit and complain. Don't put it on somebody else, put it on me, I need to fix this, I need to do this better.

"I think all the credit goes to him," Studesville added. "Whether it's his experiences, other people he's talking to, growing up, it's him. I try to encourage and support him, affirm to him that he is doing it the right way, but he did this, he made it right."

The moment it may have all turned around came in what was but a preseason cameo for the Broncos starters in Seattle. Playing with a regular-season edge, the Seahawks came after quarterback Peyton Manning. Ball missed a blitz pickup, and Manning took one of the biggest hits in his time in Denver from Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. Soon after, Moreno began to appear more and more in the team's three-wide receiver package because of his consistency in pass protection.

Moreno started to do more when he was handed the ball. And what was a three-player rotation with Moreno, Ball and Hillman is still a three-man operation, but Moreno has nudged out front. He had 19 carries against the Cowboys, and while that pales in comparison to some of the 30-carry lug-the-rock types in the league it was the most carries any Broncos back has had in a game this season.

"The thing that we would like to do is not use him as much as we did the other day," offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. "But he had a hot hand going. He was doing a great job of protection. He was running the ball really well ... Just to have him in there and to get him that hot, you don't want to go away from him."

Moreno, who was Josh McDaniels' first draft pick (16th overall in 2009) in his two-year run as Broncos' head coach, has 331 yards rushing after five games. That's his highest total since he had 337 after five games as a rookie, a season in which his 947 yards rushing still stands as a career-best because of all that has followed. His four rushing touchdowns are tied for second in the league in this pass-happy season, and his 5.1 yards per carry is good for eighth in the league, fifth among running backs.

"For me I always want to do whatever they need me to do, I don't want them to feel like I have to come out because I can't do something," Moreno said. "We have lots of good guys, we're all going to play, but I just want to be able to do what's needed. I still feel like I run with purpose every time. I just go play hard, run hard, block hard, catch the ball. I want to be with this team and I'm just going as hard as I can."

Added Studesville: "When he was third or whatever on the depth chart, the young guys were getting all the reps in the offseason and in camp, but he just kept grinding. And it wasn't so much anybody else, it was just him. And the thing is, there's no fluff there, there's no extra on it, it's just work. It's all the things we preach, that you work, that you're accountable and that you change the things that were affecting you before. It takes a lot inside to make those changes and do those things, and he's done it."