The Denver Broncos are 8-3 and well on their way to a second consecutive postseason appearance. With a win or a loss by the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos will clinch the AFC West. The Broncos still need to secure a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs and will have to accomplish it without the services of running back Willis McGahee.
The list of candidates to replace the injured McGahee was not long.
Rookie Ronnie Hillman, former first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno or special-teams ace Lance Ball were the only three options. Hillman was the logical choice to get the nod, but the Broncos turned back the clock and went with the running back drafted by former head coach Josh McDaniels—Moreno.
Moreno is a solid player, even if he’s not the player the Broncos thought he was going to be. Just a week after being an insignificant inactive, Moreno proved to be invaluable to the Broncos success.
Moreno recorded 85 rushing and 26 receiving yards in his first start since last October and averaged 4.3 yards per carry, just a shade under the 4.4 yards per carry McGahee was averaging in 2012.
Hillman replaced Moreno on the active roster from Week 3 to Week 11 and appeared to be the favorite to take over for McGahee. But the Broncos knew something about Knowshon that we didn’t: Moreno is still associated with the horrors of the McDaniels era by many fans, but that’s not really fair to him.
Throw out the past and the obvious differences in size and shape of McGahee and Moreno, and let's take a closer look.
Moreno’s career average per carry is 4.1, which is identical to McGahee’s career average. Moreno scores a touchdown every 30.3 touches in his career. McGahee scores a touchdown every 31.8 touches by comparison. Both players have had issues with fumbles.
Hillman was expected to be the guy at some point, but like many young backs with speed, he tries to bounce virtually everything outside. It works for Hillman at times, and he was able to get 10 yards on this play, but he’s just been too inconsistent between the tackles. Too many zero or negative plays throws off the rhythm of the offense, and the Broncos can’t have that happening.
Moreno is a patient runner, and like McGahee, he waits for running lanes and slips past defenders. In an offense run by Peyton Manning, picking up positive yardage is often valued over the big play. Moreno doesn’t give up on moving north and south, and he’s learned that he doesn’t have the speed to get around the edge in the NFL.
It’s not uncommon for Moreno to be faced with a decision on whether to take the run outside or cut it back. Kansas City’s defensive line did a solid job of blowing Denver’s line into the backfield. Normally, the running back takes this outside (blue line), and it’s a short loss or no gain, but Moreno patiently waits for his running lane to develop and then uses his quickness to get through the hole and gain nine yards on 1st-and-10 (yellow line).
Moreno has no space to get outside, so instead he finds a cutback lane that results in a nice gain and a first down on 2nd-and-5.
You might call this "vision," and Moreno did a nice job of navigating through the front seven to get a nice gain. Moreno might not break many long gains, but the Broncos still have Hillman for that.
The Broncos obviously saw something they liked in Moreno that got him the start over Hillman. Perhaps those reasons were unrelated to Moreno’s running and had more to do with blocking, but I think the pass-protection issues have been significantly overblown.
Moreno’s play on Sunday was very reminiscent of McGahee’s play this season, and as long as he can continue to get smart yards between the tackles, he’ll continue to be the starter in Denver.
The Broncos face a much tougher front seven this week in Tampa Bay, but the Broncos will use an occasional run just to give Manning’s arm a rest between throws.
This job is now Moreno’s to lose.