NFL Nation: running backs

Peyton Manning Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsFor Denver rookie Montee Ball, protecting Peyton Manning is a higher priority than taking handoffs from him.
Since Terrell Davis powered his way to the 1998 NFL MVP award to go with 2,008 rushing yards in the Broncos' second of back-to-back Super Bowl seasons, since he was the unquestioned stopping point for a handoff in the offense, Denver has, by both necessity and choice, led the mix-and-match movement in the league's backfields.

Since the start of 1999, 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 a team that once churned out 1,000-yard rushers like Apple products coming off the assembly line has now had just one back -- Willis McGahee in the read-option season of 2011 -- in the past six years finish with 1,000 yards.

What gives?

"It's probably a combination of things," said Broncos coach John Fox. "There are injuries, changes in the offense, changes in your personnel and just the nature of the job. That's a high-impact job in a bigger, faster, stronger league. I'm not sure anybody really sits there these days -- unless you have one of the top, top guys -- and thinks one guy is going to get you through."

And fantasy football owners be damned, the Broncos stand poised to break out the committee to run the ball once again in 2013. But how those carries will be divvied up might surprise some who watch a group that includes Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno and Jacob Hester.

Because while running the ball is great -- it's in the position's name after all -- for the Broncos' backs to get the ball, they're going to have to be good when they don't have it.

"I've said, whenever a young guys asks me, everybody who gets to the league can run, everybody can catch, but here, the way the game is played right now, you have to block," said Davis, a Broncos Ring of Fame member. "So, learn how to block, do the work and block. That's what I tell them, even if they haven't done it before because they were the main option, because that's what will get you on the field in this league and here, with this team."

Or as Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville said, "Bottom line: The better you do in pass protection, the more run opportunities you’re going to have. That's it. You aren't going to get the ball if we don't take care of the quarterback. They all know that, they are all aware of that. They don't get to run until we see the rest of it."

The Broncos certainly fit the league's profile for a passing team in a pass-first league. They have Peyton Manning at quarterback, they signed Wes Welker in free agency and their favorite formation on offense as the games grew in importance in 2012 was a three-wide receiver look.

They know defenses want to rush Manning in the middle of the formation, a formation they have to open up when they go to three wide receivers. That often puts the running back in the role of last man standing in pass protection, the guy who has to pick the most dangerous rusher who has broken free from the guys up front.

Make the right choice and there's a big play waiting in the offense. Make the wrong one and the quarterback will take a hit that almost always joins the list of biggest hits of the year and always carries the potential to crater a season.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Hillman
AP Photo/Jack DempseyRonnie Hillman is Denver's most explosive runner, but his ability to block will determine how much he'll get on the field.
So, open-field speed is great, vision in traffic a must, but the Broncos' runners know their to-do list has another rather large item on it that has nothing to do with any runs to glory. It's also why the committee appears to have formed again.

"We all know we have to keep Peyton from getting hit," Hillman said. "If you can't make the right choices in there blocking, you're probably not going to get the ball."

To that end, Hillman has put on about 15 pounds from last season and hovers closer to the 195-pound range, far better than the 178 pounds or so he came in at when the Broncos faced the Ravens in the playoffs in January. Hillman, entering his second season, is the most explosive runner the Broncos have, the big-play threat in an offense that wants more big-play runs this time around.

Ball, a rookie, spent plenty of extra time with Manning during offseason workouts in post-practice discussions about the nuances of protection schemes and the fine line between knowing when to stay in and block and when to leave the backfield to be the hot-read option.

Moreno, because of his knee troubles of recent seasons, and Hester have not shown the run skills in workouts the two youngsters have, but they are more proficient in those long-yardage responsibilities. Hester has appeared at both running back and fullback in practices, while Moreno, now up to 220 pounds, has also shown a proficiency in pass protection.

There is also the matter of audibles. Perhaps the biggest of Manning's many gifts at quarterback is his ability to change the play just before the snap to get his guys in the look that is the biggest problem for a defense.

Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, who faced Manning twice annually in Fisher's long tenure with the Titans, said, "He knows your intentions and he knows what to do, all before he snaps the ball. ... So even when you're right, there's a good chance you're wrong."

But for Manning's audibles to work, everybody else on offense has to be ready to make the changes as well. It's another hurdle for Hillman and Ball in their effort to be at the top of the rotation (when the Broncos released their first "official" depth chart of the preseason Sunday, Hillman was the No. 1 back).

“So, I always keep in my mind that they’re two young guys, but we have to age them, in terms of their knowledge of the offense, rapidly," Studesville said. “The reality of our offense is we do what the quarterback can do, so they have to catch up, they’ve got to get it. We're not going to put people out there who slow the quarterback down. If they don't understand that and don't get it, they won't play."

It's all important because the Broncos know people defend them with Manning as a passer at the top of the list. So, against a vast array of nickel, dime and other specialty defenses designed to stop problems in the air, the Broncos have to find a way to wind the clock, convert first downs, pound it in the end zone from in close and create explosive runs.

And while one back used to be enough for the job, Denver is more than comfortable using several once again in 2013.

"When we get those friendly boxes because of the way people defend Peyton, we have to feel comfortable with whoever we put back there to run it," Studesville said. "And when we get to the season, I think we will. We like this group."

And that's group, as in more than one.
As expected, Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey confirmed Monday that starting running back Fred Jackson will not play in Thursday’s game against the Miami Dolphins.

Jackson suffered a concussion on the final drive of Sunday's loss to the New England Patriots. Considering it was a head injury and Buffalo (3-6) has a quick turnaround, it seemed unlikely Jackson could recover. Gailey made it official Monday afternoon that Jackson will skip Buffalo's next game.

I'm not sure if this is good news or bad news for Miami (4-5). Yes, Buffalo's starting running back is out. But that means Miami must now stop dynamic backup C.J. Spiller, who is leading the NFL with 7.3 yards per carry.

Spiller wasn’t getting enough carries this year in large part due to Jackson. Expect Spiller to get a healthy workload Thursday against Miami.
Our Power Rankings for running backs are out and the only NFC South representative is Michael Turner.

I can’t argue with that. In fact, Turner was the only NFC South running back I included on my top 10 ballot. He’s also the only NFC South back who got any votes from our panel.

Turner came in at No. 6, although I ranked him No. 4. Just for background, I don’t use some big scientific system when doing these rankings, but I was probably closer to being scientific on running backs than I will be on any other position. That’s because running backs are different. They have very short shelf lives.

As I filled out my ballot, I looked mostly at rushing totals in two time increments. One was for the past two years and the other was for the past three years. If we had opened it up to the last eight years, then you’d have to rank guys like LaDainian Tomlinson very high and that wouldn’t be right because he no longer is an elite back.

Turner has been a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the past three season and that makes him a very solid choice on any list of top running backs.

What about Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart? First off, they’ve split carries much of the past few seasons and that holds down their numbers. Williams is an enormously talented all-around back. If I were building a team, I wouldn’t mind having him as my main running back. Problem is, he’s not even a true feature back when he and Stewart are together. Injuries also have limited Williams’ numbers.

Stewart’s a guy who, on any given day, can look as good as any back in the league. The downside with Stewart is his injury history. He came into the league with a chronic foot problem and it’s kind of a tribute to Carolina’s medical staff that he has been able to accomplish as much as he has.

Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount? Well, I left him off for now. But I’ve got a feeling he’ll be on this list next year. Just need to see him go out and do what he did last year over the course of an entire season. Oh, and by the way, Blount might want to cut out the leaping acts. They make for some good highlights, but he’s going to get hurt if he keeps that up on a regular basis. As a general rule, one of the first things running backs are taught is not to leave their feet.

Finally, we’ll touch briefly on the New Orleans running backs -- Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Chris Ivory. None of them are top-10 material. There are several reasons for that. They’re used as a combination and that prevents anyone from putting up huge numbers. There also are durability issues with Thomas and Bush. I think Thomas is New Orleans’ best all-around running back, but that doesn’t put him near the top 10.

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