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.’’
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.’’