We’re seeing Knowshon Moreno finally play to his potential with the Denver Broncos in 2013. The 2009 first-round pick had largely been a disappointment during his pro career as injuries and inconsistencies had set him back.
He was the first pick of the Josh McDaniels era, and hopes were high for him after the draft.
Coming out of Georgia, Moreno was known as the heart and soul of the Bulldogs. He was not the biggest runner, but his determination allowed him to run bigger than his size. Moreno was not the fastest runner, but had good initial burst and could get to the second level of the defense quickly.
When he began his career with the Broncos Moreno was third-string behind Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan. He worked his way up the depth chart, and finished 2009 as the team’s leading rusher with 947 yards. This is the only season that Moreno has played a full 16 games.
During the 2010 and 2011 seasons Moreno’s time was cut short by knee injuries. In 2010 he began the season as the starter, but missed three games near the start of the year. In 2011 he was relegated to backup player behind Willis McGahee. With quarterback Tim Tebow running the show, Moreno’s opportunities were cut even shorter.
With a quarterback change to Peyton Manning in 2012 the team looked to Moreno as a backup behind McGahee at the beginning of the year. After a Week 2 fumble against the Falcons, we saw Moreno as a healthy scratch for the next eight games. During that time Moreno was used as a scout team player, and he did not dress on Sunday.
However, when McGahee went down with an injury in Week 11 the Broncos turned to Moreno as the starter in Week 12. He looked good until a postseason knee injury once again derailed his momentum.
In the offseason we saw Moreno eased back into action. Coming off his knee injury against the Ravens, the team wanted to be cautious with the veteran.
During minicamp, OTAs and training camp it was Ronnie Hillman getting around 75 percent of the first-team work. Moreno was used only as a red-zone player at that time.
After three preseason fumbles by Hillman, the Broncos turned to Moreno as their most trusted back.
In fact, he’s become an extremely important cog in the Broncos’ high-powered offense. Moreno is the team’s leading rusher this year, and the offense is feeding off his energy after his tough runs.
Since Moreno got the starting job back in Week 12 of the 2012 season, he’s enjoyed success as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. During those 11 regular-season games, Moreno has compiled 196 carries for 844 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. During that time he also has 33 catches for 282 yards receiving.
On a per-game basis, that averages out to be 17.8 carries, 76.7 yards rushing (4.3 yards per carry), three catches and 25 yards receiving. That’s good for over 100 all-purpose yards each game. Projected over a 16 game season, Moreno would have 285 carries, 1,227 yards rushing, 10 rushing touchdowns, 48 catches and 400 receiving yards. That’s a nice pace for a back in a running back by committee.
Moreno just looks like a different player. More accurately, he looks like the player he should have been when he came out of college as a first-round pick. So the question becomes, how did he do it?
Let’s take a look at how Moreno has transformed his game with the Broncos.
Moreno struggled with his vision early on in his pro career. The pro game moves faster than the college game, and sometimes running backs take some time to get used to that speed.
In the picture below we see Moreno try to ram the ball up the gut out of the Broncos’ “Wild Horses” formation. After the direct snap, he should have easily seen the lane to the left.
In this picture we see Moreno with a huge amount of space to work with to the right side. The handoff from Tebow is clean, but Moreno runs into his own man then bounces back to the inside for a gain of one yard.
In the game against the Cowboys, Moreno started off with a big 16-yard run. However, the run play was blown up as tight end Julius Thomas failed to hold his block. Moreno sees this, makes a sharp cut inside, maintains his balance then quickly gets down the field.
This is just one example of how his vision has improved.
When Moreno first came into the league he tried to do too much on every carry. Many rookie running backs think they can bounce runs outside for big gains like they used to do in college. That is not the case as the speed of NFL defenders is too great.
In the picture below we see Moreno with the second carry of his pro career. Instead of plunging the run between the tackles for a few yards, Moreno tries to go to the corner. The result of the play is no gain.
Now we see Moreno wait for his blocks to develop. If there’s no cutback lane to see, Moreno will just take what the defense gives him and lower his head to charge forward.
In this picture we see Moreno have the patience to get to the corner. The result of the play is a 25-yard touchdown in Week 2 against the Giants.
Moreno now knows the holes will be there if he allows blocks to properly develop in front of him.
This is perhaps the biggest reason why Moreno has turned his career around with the Broncos. Earlier in his career Moreno had plenty of distractions, which took some focus away from football.
In February of 2012 Moreno was charged with driving under the influence. (via the Denver Post). The license plates on his Bentley were personalized, and they said “Sauced.” His legal trouble wasn't the only problem he's had.
Moreno has had to deal with several problems during his pro career, both on and off the field. He’s been hurt a lot, missing 11 games to injury during his time with the Broncos. He’s also been relegated to working with the scout team. Moreno was inactive for eight weeks in 2012 before taking over as the starter.
The Broncos added free-agent Willis McGahee to push Moreno for the starting job in 2011. They also drafted Ronnie Hillman in the third-round of the 2012 NFL draft. This year, the Broncos selected Montee Ball in the third-round of the 2013 NFL draft. All of these transactions gave the appearance the team wanted a change at the running back position.
Moreno had to be humbled by these moves, but he’s also become increasingly focused because of them. Now, he doesn’t take any touch for granted. This maximizes what he does with the ball every time the rock is in his hands.
Earlier this week coach John Fox commented on the maturity of Moreno, “I’ve just seen him mature a lot, on and off the field... He’s dealt with different things and he’s dealt with it maybe better than we did here recently.”
Moreno certainly has a chip on his shoulder. He’s more mature now, but he’s also more focused on proving haters wrong. I always joke with Moreno that he runs angry, to which he replies, "I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to help this team."
He loves to run through arm tackles, and is much better at this than he used to be. Moreno also thrives on delivering the blow instead of absorbing it when getting tackled.
Once he’s made a big hit on an opponent, Moreno usually has something emphatic to say after the play. This attitude helps him get hot, and stay hot as a runner.
After the Cowboys game, offensive coordinator Adam Gase commented on Moreno running with the hot hand. “The thing that we would like to do is not use him as much as we did the other day. But he had a hot hand going. He was doing a great job of protection. He was running the ball really well.
"The O-Line was opening up some nice holes, but he was really making some hay in the passing game—getting to the right spot, getting vertical after catching the ball. Just to have him in there and to get him that hot, you don’t want to go away from him. [RB] Ronnie [Hillman] went in there and spun them a couple times, but we really want to get to the point where all three of those guys are contributing every week. If one does get hot, you have to stay with him, you can’t move away from him.”
If Moreno does not run through tackles, he will take to the sky. We’ve seen him jump over defenders dating back to his days in college.
Even when Moreno is having a strong season, he still has plenty of doubters. During the game against the Cowboys in Week 5, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy went to Twitter to express his opinion on Moreno.
Knowshon sucks RT @RealSkipBayless: Peyton is doing what Peyton always does. But Knowshon is KILLING the Cowboys.
— Lesean McCoy (@CutonDime25) October 6, 2013
”Moreno sucks.” Is what McCoy tweeted back to ESPN’s Skip Bayless. This just fuels Moreno to prove critics—even other NFL running backs – wrong .
The naysayers don’t bother him, but instead charge him up each Sunday. He uses this mental energy to drive him every week.
The Broncos look to Moreno as the most trusted back on the roster. Moreno has done a fantastic job of working within this offense to be productive and consistent.
With improved vision, Moreno now finds the cutback lanes when they open up. He’s doing a better job of anticipating where to go with the football.
His patience is far better than it used to be. Moreno no longer tries to break a big run on every carry. Instead, he’s patient with his blocks and knows how to take what a defense gives him.
Moreno has grown up in the NFL. He’s no longer concerned about off-field distractions. Instead, Moreno is solely focused on being the best pro back he can be.
His angry running style helps him punish defenders. Moreno draws energy from this big runs, and that energy is infectious for his teammates.
Moreno also draws positive energy from the negative opinions of people who doubt him. He knows that Fox, Manning, Eric Studesville and the entire Broncos team respect his ability. That’s all that matters to the seasoned pro.
Some have mistakenly called Moreno a “capable” running back. That description doesn’t give him enough credit for the pro he’s become. Moreno is more than capable, he’s good.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand.