Even with Peyton Manning
in the fold, the Broncos
have invested heavily in the backfield. (Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
NEWARK, N.J. -- The Denver run game is something of an afterthought as Super Bowl XLVIII approaches, tucked behind Peyton Manning's passing attack, Seattle's defense, Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Wes Welker's helmet, Terrance Knighton's nickname, the weather and ... well, you get the idea.
But a funny thing happened after the Broncos signed Peyton Manning in March 2012: They used a third-round draft pick the next month on running back Ronnie Hillman and then a 2013 second-rounder on Montee Ball, all despite having Knowshon Moreno (No. 12 overall in 2009) on the roster.
No team other than Denver took more than one back in Round 3 or higher over the past two drafts, and no team has committed more early-round resources to the running back position since that Moreno selection. If the Broncos are indeed flippant about their talent in the backfield, they're doing a great job hiding it.
"I think our organization, that John Elway and his staff have done a great job of finding players to complement our team," Denver running backs coach Eric Studesville said during Tuesday's Media Day. "It's not just finding a running back but finding players that have the right character and right work ethic, because they've got to do more than just run the ball. I don't know that they're devalued in any way -- we're just trying to find the best football players to come in to help the team."
They have succeeded there for the most part with Ball, though incorporating him fully into the offense required some patience. Ball carried the ball a combined 663 times over his final two seasons at Wisconsin, only to find himself battling Moreno and Hillman for touches once he arrived in Denver.
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The exact pecking order was a bit of a mystery when training camp opened so many months ago. Ball's arrival further crowded a position where Hillman had never made an NFL start. Moreno had been scratched from the lineup early in 2012 due to lack of production.
That it was Moreno, not Ball, who emerged as the No. 1 option during the regular season only made the unit more formidable.
"I believe as much as you can, you want that to play out," said Studesville of figuring out the depth chart. "You have to get guys out there and let them showcase what they can do and it usually sorts itself out. Some guys are going to rise to the top; some guys are not going to play as well."
Hillman fell into the latter category. Like Moreno last season, he battled consistency issues early. He also had some fumbling issues, all of which led head coach John Fox to pull him from the lineup. He still finished the year with 55 carries and a 4.0 yards-per-attempt average -- the number Ball said Denver aimed for in its run game -- but it was the Moreno-Ball duo that really led the way.
While Manning's aerial attack was setting NFL records, the backfield more than held its own. Denver finished No. 15 in the league in yards rushing and topped the century mark in 14 of its 18 games (counting the playoffs).
"The pass complements the run, and vice versa," Moreno said. "You want to stay as balanced as you can, but at the end of the day, it’s what they’re giving you, it’s whatever is working for you at the time, you’ve got to go with that."
Ball's emergence certainly has made it easier for Denver to mix in run plays with greater frequency. He had just 139 yards rushing through the Broncos' first seven games; over the final nine of the regular season, he put up 420 with 18 receptions to boot.
"I'm glad that I finally started doing some great things at the end," Ball said. "That's why they drafted me -- for that last final push, the playoffs."
Of course, the Broncos could have balked on drafting Ball, period. After all, with Manning entering his second season in Denver and Wes Welker joining him to make the passing offense even more of a terror, Elway and Co. could have tried to live without the ex-Badger. Instead, they left players like Tyrann Mathieu, Larry Warford and Keenan Allen on the board to bring Ball into the fold.
Sunday, on the sport's ultimate stage, that decision may pay off even more than it has throughout the 2013 season.
"They’re talented all across the board," Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "They protect Peyton well and they run the ball well. ... I think they do a really good job of balancing the run and pass."
Perhaps the old days of NFL teams building from the running back position out are dying (though Seattle, with Marshawn Lynch, might argue). Several teams this season -- New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Detroit and the Jets, to name a few -- received major contributions from undrafted running backs. Indianapolis' flop of a trade for Trent Richardson plus a 2014 running back draft class seemingly shy of any obvious superstars could encourage even more teams to play it conservatively at that position.
Denver has yet to join that camp, even upon the arrival of a future Hall of Fame QB in Manning. As a result, the Broncos are well-stocked with a versatile group in the backfield.
"We're going to try to be productive, have good efficient runs," Studesville said. "Stay on track so that we can give Peyton the best chance."