With Willis McGahee likely out for the remainder of the regular season, Knowshon Moreno is getting a hefty promotion and yet another chance to assert himself as a reliable NFL running back.
Moreno's lack of consistency has kept him under wraps in Denver and earned him the reputation of being one of the more disappointing players in recent Broncos history.
If you combine his inconsistent play with the injury problems he's faced, it's clear that Moreno's "playing schedule" has yet to see any real normalcy. Perhaps with McGahee out, this is Moreno's first chance to get into the swing of things and actually play some football.
In his first game as a starter (in what seems like a long time), Moreno carried the ball 20 times for 85 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs. Certainly not a devastating performance, but the Denver Broncos just happen to have what might be the most "devastating" passer in the league right now in the form of Peyton Manning. Hence the Broncos didn't need Moreno to crack 120 yards on the ground.
In short, he did his job and he did it well, which is more than we've seen from the guy in recent memory. The question now becomes: What is Moreno's role moving forward?
A few variables will likely come into play.
Part of what has made McGahee so valuable to the Broncos over the last two years has been his ability to block for both Tim Tebow and now Manning on a consistent basis. McGahee has a decided advantage over Moreno in this area in terms of size and raw blocking ability.
Consider also that Moreno has typically been utilized as a third-down back, therefore gaining very little experience as a blocker. Now that he's the first-string back, he'll be called upon to protect Manning to some degree or another, which is a tall order at this point in the season considering Manning's value to the team.
They simply can't lose him, and with a decidedly light group of half backs on the depth chart, the 200-point Moreno will have to be enough.
Their only other option is to put Lance Ball in for blocking situations, who weighs in at 215 and could be an improvement if you go by size.
Essentially, Mike McCoy is going to have to hope that his offensive line holds up noticeably well until they figure out how to compensate for their lack of size at the running back position.
Regardless, Moreno must help out in terms of blocking. His effectiveness in this area will be a large determinant of his success, especially since Manning won't be handing the ball off much if he's having to go 12-15 yards for first downs.
We can fault Moreno for a lot of things, but his speed is undoubtedly off the table. Simply put, the guy is fast, which is a large part of why he was so often utilized as a third-down option. The difference in this area between him and McGahee is certainly noticeable, as McGahee is more of a shifty, elusive back who uses a lot of patience and appears slower.
Moreno's preference is to just flat-out burn defenders and outrun them. Both approaches can work, though it remains to be seen how the Broncos' running game will fare going from the McGahee Doctrine to the Moreno Doctrine.
If McCoy can whip up a speed-focused rushing attack, Moreno will have a real chance at some significant yardage. However, if McCoy decides to keep things simple and rely on Manning, Moreno's ability to utilize his speed will likely be limited unless the Broncos play a few games with safe leads, which isn't entirely unlikely.
The Role of Lance Ball and Ronnie Hillman
Both Ball and Hillman have seen limited action this season, combining for fewer than 300 yards rushing, though certainly making an impact as McGahee's relief. The amount of carries they will receive isn't certain, though it will certainly have an impact on Moreno's role and his ability to perform.
During last week's game against Kansas City, Hillman carried the ball only three times for nine yards, while Ball didn't receive any carries. Conventional wisdom is that Hillman's role won't drastically change moving forward, though that could depend on Moreno's success.
If the game against the Chiefs is any indication, the Broncos have made a one-for-one swap, placing Moreno firmly atop the Broncos' depth chart in place of McGahee. The odds of McCoy splitting carries between the backs or even utilizing Ball in a three-back rotation doesn't seem likely at this point.
Moreno will get the chance to play, and if you ignore the possibility of injury (his luck has to change at some point), you can expect him to at least get ample opportunity to make an impact without any significant changes being made to the Broncos' game plan.
If the guy can't block and Manning is getting chased out of the pocket and sacked repeatedly, look for all that to change in a hurry. Otherwise, Moreno might finally have the shot he's been waiting for.