In the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Denver Broncos selected running back Montee Ball out of Wisconsin. Before training camp began, there was a feeling that Ball could win the starting job and be the lead back for the Broncos when the season started.
That didn’t happen, as the rookie struggled with the speed of the game, and he ended up third on the depth chart behind Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman.
Even though he was third on the depth chart, Ball received some early season touches to get him used to the pro game. It was two early season fumbles that put Ball in the doghouse with the coaching staff and his playing time was drastically reduced. In fact, from Week 5 through Week 7 Ball only saw 14 snaps combined.
However, a Week 7 fumble near the goal line by Hillman opened the door for Ball once again. Over the last three games we’ve seen Ball get more touches as he’s earned back the trust of the coaching staff.
Against the Chiefs in Week 11, Ball had the most productive day of his short pro career. He finished the contest with eight carries for 25 yards and three receptions for 16 yards. Ball’s most important contributions came in the form of two red zone rushing touchdowns.
His nose for the end zone is one of the reasons why the Broncos selected him over other running backs available in the draft. He finished his college career with more touchdowns (83) than any other player in NCAA history.
Ball could play an important role for the Broncos in the second half of the season. What is different with the rookie running back, and how big can his role for the Broncos be?
Let’s take a look at why Ball could take on a larger role going forward for the Broncos in 2013.
What Has Changed
Ball doesn’t look like the player he used to be. Earlier this season, I documented the struggles of Ball and delved into why he wasn’t performing up to expectations.
Here we see him struggle with the speed of the Ravens defense. Ball thinks he can run outside for the score, but he only picks up four yards on this carry.
On Tuesday, I interviewed Ball on ESPN Denver. He first discussed how the game was slowing down for him in recent weeks. “Yeah, it’s slowing down a lot. I figure it’s better late than never. It’s finally slowing down for me, and I’m finally capitalizing on the opportunity I’m getting. I’m trying to capitalize on every handoff I get.”
This is the second touchdown Ball scored against the Chiefs. This time around he knew the speed he needed to get in order to make the pylon.
This picture shows the hesitation Ball was running with earlier this season.
In recent weeks Ball has been more decisive as a runner. The change in his running style is evident and one of the reasons why his production has increased.
I asked Ball if he felt more decisive when running the football. “Yeah, and that’s what I’ve been focused on in practice and when I watch film. I just tell myself to make one cut and go. It’s what I’ve been focused on and trying to do going forward in every game. It’s been working, and I’m most definitely going to keep trying to do it.”
Ball is also doing a better job of securing the football. He’s now wrapping the ball tightly to his body, and he’s covering it up with two hands when running through traffic.
Ball talked to me about the patience he needed to regain after two early season fumbles.
“This is a game about confidence, and I’m only human. I lost a little bit of confidence early on in myself. I made sure to keep at it, keep chipping away, keep staying focused and keep staying in my playbook. I knew sooner or later it was going to happen. I’m very blessed and very happy that has happened. Coaches have faith in me to play me, and I just want to make everyone proud, do the right things and make plays.”
What His Role is Now
At this time, Ball is the backup running back behind Moreno. His ability to score touchdowns with ease makes him a great option near pay dirt. Ball ranks sixth in the NFL in rushes per touchdown (22.7). This is better than starters like Marshawn Lynch (23.1) and Matt Forte (25.0). However, he still ranks behind Moreno (18.8) on the season. Still, Ball ranks well above the league average of 35.4 rushes per touchdown.
Ball ranks 19th in the league for running backs when it comes to first downs per rushing attempt (20.6 percent). This ranks ahead of fellow rookies Eddie Lacy (19.2), Gio Bernard (17.0) and Le’Veon Bell (18.3).
This picture shows his intent style. He picks up the first down here because he is not hesitant. Compare that to the picture earlier in the article where he lost yards on a short-yardage play.
Ball is doing a better job of picking up yards after contact. Gone is the hesitation, and it has been replaced by tenacity. Ball’s leg drive is evident now as he’s no longer looking for dance partners in the backfield. Instead, Ball is running with aggression and bursting through arm tackles. His yards after contact per rush (1.47) ranks 27th in the league and is the best mark on the Broncos roster.
He’s clearly running with more confidence in recent weeks. Asked where he confidence level was at Ball said this. “It’s where it needs to be [laughs]. I’m just more focused, a lot more focused and ready to just keep this thing going.”
This confidence shows up in this creative touchdown run against the Chiefs. Ball pulls off a spin move near the beginning of his run to slip through the cracks and score.
What His Role Could Be
Statistically, Ball ranks near Moreno in many categories. With his improved ball security and confidence the team could turn to him as the starter if necessary. Moreno is a fine veteran, but his career has been set back by injuries. In fact, Moreno has only played a full season one time (2009) in his five-year pro career.
The Broncos running back corps is an interesting mix of talent and differing skill sets. Knowshon Moreno is the lead back and is trusted to do anything. Ball is the rookie with the nose for the end zone and intriguing upside. C.J. Anderson is an undrafted rookie with good burst and power between the tackles. Ronnie Hillman is the speed change of pace back who is dangerous in the open field.
I asked Ball what his relationship was like with the other backs on this roster.
“Yeah, we have a great running back room. It starts with our coach, Coach E (Eric Studesville). We’re all very close because we’re all in this fight together. There’s no bad blood between any of us. Obviously we all want to be the starter. We all want to be the feature back. We understand that we’re fighting for the same position but we’re all friends. We all help each other, we all watch film together, most definitely stick by each other. We’re all in this fight together, and we all want the end result together which is to be in New York [for the Super Bowl].”
In order to get more playing time Ball must continue to prove himself as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. However, most importantly he must continue to show well as a pass protector. Keeping Peyton Manning from getting hit is priority number one for the Broncos. Ball struggled with pass protection during training camp, but it is a skill he’s worked hard to improve.
I finished up the interview with Ball by asking for a progress report on his pass protection ability.
“I’ve made great strides in my pass protection. That’s extremely important, especially in this type of offense. Having the quarterback we have, you have to keep him on his feet. Great plays are going to be made downfield with our great receivers. We take a lot of pride in our running back room of watching blitz cut-ups and studying them to find certain keys or tips that may tell us where the defensive pressure is going to come from. I’ve been taking that to heart every week in practice, focusing on my pass protection because that’s very important especially in this offense.”
Ball is an under-the-radar player who could play a larger role than some people think. The team has regained confidence in his ability, and he could start to see an almost even split of snaps with Moreno.
The team will give him every opportunity to succeed as they continue on in their quest for a Super Bowl victory. In the last month of the season, we could see Ball get a large role, especially if the team has wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Experience is the best teacher and Ball has done a good job of learning and growing this season. It will be exciting to see what else he can learn and achieve the rest of his rookie season.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.