There are those who believe you have to have some semblance of a running game to win the Super Bowl. Not everyone subscribes to this theory, but there is solid reasoning behind it. Unless a team is extremely lucky, it is going to encounter either a defense that can slow down Peyton Manning or an offense that can score as quickly as the Denver Broncos can.
The coaching staff needs to be able to trust the running game and defense to carry the team. Denver’s defense has been able to carry the team at times this season, but the running game hasn’t been asked to shoulder the burden.
When Willis McGahee went down, the Broncos could have turned to the speedy rookie Ronnie Hillman if they were content with the running game only being a change of pace to the passing attack, but instead they turned to Knowshon Moreno, and he’s carried the ball 72 times in three weeks since becoming a starter.
If the theory is correct, then the Broncos will at some point need to ride Moreno in a playoff game. Moreno is averaging 129.3 yards from scrimmage since becoming the starter. To put that in perspective, only Adrian Peterson is averaging more per game this season. Despite rushing for only 3.8 yards per carry, Moreno has been productive.
Moreno isn’t likely to continue at this pace, and the 167 total yards against the Oakland Raiders certainly skewed the numbers, but take only his first two games into account and he’d still be averaging 97.0 yards per game. That’s just below the current average of Alfred Morris and just above Chris Johnson and Arian Foster. The sample is small, but the sample is good.
Excluding the game he was injured, McGahee averaged 97.7 yards per game. The production from Moreno has been a big reason why there has been little to no perceptible difference in the offense with McGahee out. Another reason has been Moreno’s work as a pass protector.
Pass protection was given as one of the possible areas of weakness going from McGahee to Moreno, but something odd has happened over the past two games. McGahee stayed in to pass block less than five times per game on average, according to ProFootballFocus (pay wall) data, but Moreno has been asked to pass block 31 times (over 10 per game).
Despite more work as a pass protector, Moreno has been largely invisible. That’s a good sign for Moreno and the Broncos going forward. Moreno appears to have earned the trust of Manning or he wouldn’t be on the field and the Broncos would turn to someone else to fill the void. It appears that the Broncos were intentionally stress testing Moreno in pass protection, and so far he’s passed the test.
Moreno has shown over the last three games that he has surprisingly good vision. Moreno knows where to cut back, and he anticipates his blocks developing. He takes this handoff and heads for the obvious hole.
Once Moreno gets to the hole, he sees how hard the Kansas City Chiefs are flowing in that direction and he cuts back against the flow as his blockers are in ideal position.
Moreno slices through the line and picks up a big gain on the play. Not every running back makes this play and far too many would have run it into three defenders and picked up a yard or two.
Another reason Moreno has been able to produce has been the run blocking. The Broncos have done a nice job opening holes for Moreno.
The Broncos faced a stingy Tampa Bay Buccaneers run defense, and the offensive line still managed to open enough holes big enough for three or four Morenos to fit through.
It also doesn’t hurt to be athletic, and Moreno is able to hurdle a defender to pick up an extra five yards at the end of the play. This is probably a move the bigger McGahee couldn’t make if he was still healthy.
Moreno is far from a perfect running back, but he’s slowly proving that he can be productive even when given a full rushing load. It seems that the Broncos can do no wrong in any phase of the game, and they owe all that to the presence of Manning under center.
The time is now for the Broncos, and it doesn’t look like the running game is going to be the thing that keeps the team from winning it all.