TELL US, Montee Ball, about the difference between playing running back in the Big Ten and in the NFL.
"The players aren't that much faster than college," says the 5' 10", 215-pound rookie, "but they're smarter." At Wisconsin, he recalls, "coaches would tell us, Watch that safety rotation—the direction they rotate tells you where the blitz is coming from. Up here, they do a great job rotating safeties, but right before the snap, they rotate back!"
Ball was in fine spirits on this August afternoon, having scored two TDs—one rushing, one receiving—against the first-string defense in a red-zone scrimmage. It was his best pro practice to this point, and it helped improve his position in one of the more intriguing camp battles of this preseason. The Broncos see themselves on the cusp of a Super Bowl, but to get there they knew they needed to upgrade their ground game. While Denver's Peyton Manning--led offense ranked second in scoring (30.1 ppg) and fourth in passing yards (397.9), the Broncos were just so-so on the ground, averaging 114.5 yards, 16th overall. To add some oomph, they drafted Ball with the 58th pick, then cut aging, injury-prone Willis McGahee, last year's starter.
His absurd production at Wisconsin, where he rushed for 5,140 yards and 77 TDs, leaves little doubt that Ball can ball. It'll help his transition that Denver runs a zone-blocking scheme; Ball excelled at finding cutback lanes in the same system at Wisconsin. He comes to the NFL with a reputation for excellent vision and the patience to set up his blockers. But as Ball is finding out, the most important prerequisite for all Broncos running backs is not, in fact, running. Yes, they need to make defenders miss, catch passes out of the backfield, and move the chains, but first and foremost, they must keep blitzers and rushers off the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer, the guy who is constantly flashing hand signals at them just before the ball is snapped.
It was this challenge that curtailed Ronnie Hillman's playing time last season. Hillman, Denver's third-round pick in 2012, is a fast-twitch, change-of-pace runner with superb burst. But he struggled in protection, and his time on the field reflected it. This season, says coach John Fox, Hillman is vastly improved, which is why he's remained ahead of Ball on the depth chart throughout the preseason.
It's not that Ball is whiffing regularly on blitzers. To the contrary, "Montee's football intelligence is outstanding," says Fox. "I've been very impressed with how fast he's learned." There has, however, been the occasional misadventure. Late in the first quarter of Denver's warmup at Seattle on Aug. 17, Manning dropped back to pass as Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner blitzed. Despite aggressively filling the hole, Ball barely slowed Wagner, who flattened the QB. Ball didn't lose much, if any, ground in the running backs competition during that 40--10 preseason loss. That's because Hillman fumbled twice.
The third entry in Denver's running back derby is also the most reliable at keeping Manning clean. After fumbling against the Falcons in Week 2 last season, Knowshon Moreno found himself exiled to football Siberia, inactive for eight straight games. When McGahee tore an MCL in November, Moreno leapfrogged Hillman, who'd been No. 2 on the depth chart. The ex--Georgia Bulldog proceeded to play lights out, rushing for 510 yards over Denver's final six games.
With Hillman struggling to hold on to the rock and Ball still polishing his pickups, Moreno had a pretty good night just standing on the sideline in Seattle, recuperating from a bruised knee. He gets it: For a team that passes roughly 60% of the time, "protection is the Number 1 issue—that and making sure you're in the right place at the right time. If [Manning] expects you to be someplace, you need to be there." Will he chew guys out for blown assignments? "He's a good dude, but he's a perfectionist," Moreno replies. In other words: Yes.
Moreno was seated at a picnic table outside the dining hall at Broncos camp. Earlier, Manning stood there with a group of military personnel. After thanking them for their service, he posed for a picture. "Everyone get in close," he instructed. So they did, forming a kind of cocoon around the quarterback, as if they, too, understood Job One in Denver: Protect Peyton.
THE CASE FOR ...
Strong safety Duke Ihenacho
The suspension of Von Miller (18½ sacks in 2012) and the loss of Elvis Dumervil (11) mean one thing: Opposing QBs are going to have a lot more time to throw. And that's O.K. with Ihenacho, who's on a serious roll. In one year since going undrafted, he's transformed from camp body to practice player to promising backup to starter. The son of Nigerian immigrants didn't play football until his junior year of high school, and in Broncos camp a year ago his playmaking was tempered by the fact that his head was swimming. "I'm more confident in my playbook, and my teammates are more confident in me," says Nacho, who had several INTs of Peyton Manning in camp. He was also arguably the best defender on the field against the 49ers in Denver's first exhibition: seven solo tackles, one pass broken up and a forced fumble—all in a quarter and a half. Meanwhile, last year's starting safeties, Rahim Moore and Mike Adams, combined for just three takeaways in '12. There's a cartoon, well known by salesmen and M.B.A.'s, in which one vulture tells another, "Patience my ass, let's kill something!" Ihenacho is the impatient buzzard. And Adams is now his backup.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
(N) NEW ACQUISITION
ERIC LARS BAKKE
RB MONTEE BALL
ERIC LARS BAKKE