ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is what drains the superpowers out of the Denver Broncos' offense. It brings it to its knees. It is the fumble. Rather, not just "a" fumble, but a slew of them. No team in the league has put the ball on the ground and lost more fumbles than the Broncos have this season.
The total is now 16 lost fumbles after three more got away in the Broncos' overtime loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday night. This puts the Broncos well in front of the New York Giants' 12 fumbles and the 10 by the Minnesota Vikings.
"Kryptonite, it's been kryptonite so far," Broncos interim head coach Jack Del Rio said. "I watched 'Man of Steel' on the ride home [from New England]. That's an issue and we've got to correct it. We've got to be better there. That's the one area that regardless of how good you are, that's the kind of thing that can really cripple you and we've got to protect the football better. We are preaching it."
While quarterbacks routinely lead their respective teams in lost fumbles because of blindside hits in the pocket -- Peyton Manning is no exception with a team-leading six lost fumbles this season -- it is the propensity for the ball to end up on the ground in the return game and from the team's running backs that have been most troubling.
And after offensive coordinator Adam Gase said he hoped to dial back running back Knowshon Moreno's workload a bit, Moreno has carried the ball 64 times combined in the past two games because he seems to be the only one who can hold on to it.
Before the Kansas City Chiefs arrived in Denver two Sundays ago, Moreno had carried the ball more than 25 times just once in 53 regular-season games, and that was a 32-carry effort last season against the Oakland Raiders. But in the last two weeks, he has had 27 carries against the Chiefs for 79 yards to go with 37 carries against the Patriots on Sunday for a career-best 224 yards.
Yes, the Broncos want to spell a player who had ACL surgery in 2011 to go with another knee procedure this past offseason. Yes, the Broncos would like one of their young running backs to be the guy to do it.
But it hasn't happened because of, at least in part, what Gase refers to as the "trust factor."
And it's really two factors: it's blocking in the passing game and it's still having the ball in your hands when the running play ends. It's why, until Montee Ball, C.J. Anderson or Ronnie Hillman consistently meets those two standards -- Ball and Anderson each fumbled Sunday night -- the Broncos will be inclined to keep handing the ball to Moreno and hope for the best in terms of Moreno's durability.
But after a career night, Moreno left Gillette Stadium with a walking boot on his right foot because of what Del Rio called a bone bruise. But Del Rio added Moreno's workload against the Patriots was part of a concerted effort for the Broncos to run the ball better, and Moreno has produced the best results.
"I think it was the hot hand [Sunday] night," Del Rio said. "I think we played the hot hand. [Moreno] really was exceptional. ... He ran tough, had passion. They were doing their best to rattle him, do different things to try and get the ball off of him -- and it wasn't even close. So no, it was a really gritty, tough performance. We thought he was the hot hand. We rolled that hot hand. He had a great night. We have that in the back of our mind. We don't have him on a pitch count. We're not protecting a pitcher and going to make sure that he's going to be good 10 years from now. We'd like to win now. We're working the guys we have, the best of our ability, recognizing there is a season to play. But [Sunday] night, I think it was just right.”
Just right, perhaps, but it was just the second game of Moreno's career in which he's had more than 30 carries. Del Rio said Moreno could return to practice at some point this week, but the time has come for the other backs to show they can hang on to the ball. And the one who earns the most trust will be the one who gets the carries, most likely Ball at the moment.
Or as Ball has put it: "We know it's important to keep the ball, it's the priority, that and making sure you protect Peyton. It's pretty clear."
But the Broncos have tried to deal with the problem as well. They have talked about fumbling -- "over and over again,'' Gase said -- about how the ball should be carried drill after drill in practice when the defensive players have been asked to make it as difficult as possible for the ball carriers to hang on to the ball.
"We dedicate more [time] than you might think," Del Rio said. "We drill it, rip at it. We have different drills that our guys are being put through all the time. So we are definitely not only stressing it and talking about it, but we are coaching it and drilling it. Look, I'm an optimistic guy. I believe that we're giving it the proper attention. I believe that is something that we can fix ourselves. We control that. And so I believe, as we do that, that we take away the one thing that has kind of been our kryptonite and hopefully it gets a lot better."