The Denver Broncos have an amazing passing offense thanks to quarterback Peyton Manning, and it’s almost a given that the offense is going to be great unless the temperature drops below freezing. Unfortunately for Manning and the Broncos, there’s a good chance he will be playing outdoors in January in a cold-weather city.
If the Broncos are going to win it all this year, they are going to need the running game to pick up some of the slack. That means getting key contributions from at least one but probably two of the running backs on the roster.
The starter—Knowshon Moreno—is a solid running back, but there is a reason the Broncos drafted Montee Ball last April with their second-round pick. It’s Ball that could be one of the many key players on the team over the next two months.
Last week, Ball was a key player in Denver’s big win over the Chiefs, as he rushed for a career-high 117 yards on 13 carries. Every team that wins the Super Bowl gets big contributions from players who may have had smaller roles early in the season, so it’s not insane to think Ball could be a big factor in Denver’s Super Bowl run.
The Cure for Fumblitis
One of the reasons Ball hasn’t seen more carries this season is because he has fumbled three times on just 88 carries. Moreno has fumbled just once on 202 carries, and the Broncos also didn’t lose that gaffe.
What’s so odd about Ball’s fumble issues is that they weren’t an issue in college. In fact, Ball only lost two fumbles on 924 carries at Wisconsin. Ball’s ball-security issue is yet another example of the differences between college football and the NFL, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bust yet.
According to Ball, via Arnie Stapleton of The Associated Press, he was able to identify the problem with running backs coach Eric Studesville after two fumbles in Week 2 and 3.
“At Wisconsin, I had a very, very long time before I was even touched. Sometimes I wasn't even touched at all on a lot of my runs," Ball said. "Here, it's the NFL. Everyone's great. So, I've been working on just positioning the ball as soon as I get the handoff, put the ball away quick."
The fix seemed to work, and Ball had 46 touches without a fumble before fumbling in Denver’s loss to the New England Patriots in Week 12. The Broncos were leading 24-7 at the time of Ball’s third fumble of the year, and the Patriots turned the fumble into seven points.
|Ball's Fumble Rate Comparison|
|Montee Ball (Last 9)||1||61||1.6%|
One of the quickest ways to lose is to turn the ball over, but few quarterbacks are benched after one fumble—it turns out there is a reason. On average, quarterbacks produce about twice as many yards per attempt as a running back does on the ground. That means an interception rate of about 2.5 percent is average, but a running back’s fumble rate needs to be about half of that to be equal.
Ball’s fumble rate on 97 touches is 3.1 percent and Moreno’s is 0.41 percent. That ignores the fact that Ball has made a correction and his earlier fumbling issues should be behind him.
Ball’s fumble rate since identifying his flaw is just 1.6 percent which is acceptable for a starting running back. By comparison, Adrian Peterson’s fumble rate is 1.4 percent, Jamaal Charles’ is 1.5 percent, Marshawn Lynch's is 1.6 percent and Reggie Bush’s is 1.8 percent.
Ball’s fumble against the Patriots—while costly—shouldn’t be cause for major concern or be grounds for him to lose carries. Even if the fumbling issue isn’t totally fixed, the only way he’s going to figure things out further than he already has is to get more opportunities.
It’s worth noting that Ball’s fumble against the Patriots came on a short pass and not a rush. In this case, the linebacker read Manning and blasted Ball with a five-yard running start. It's not excusing the fumble, but even the best running backs fumble on similar plays.
Like any running back might be after 12 games, Moreno is getting a bit banged up. Moreno hurt his ankle two weeks ago but was still able to play last week against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Moreno is just 31 touches away from a career high that he set during his rookie year. Moreno is averaging over 20 touches per game and should eclipse 300 on the season if he stays healthy and doesn’t lose too many carries to Ball.
Moreno probably isn’t 100 percent healthy, but few are this time of year. Health impacts performance, so giving Moreno some rest can also help the offense.
The health of Moreno alone is reason enough to get Ball more carries, but it’s not the only reason. As a rusher, Ball is averaging 4.3 yards per carry to Moreno’s 4.2 yards per carry.
Even these numbers don’t tell the whole story because Ball is creating more yards after contact. Ball is also making more guys miss than Moreno with the exception being the performance of Moreno in the passing game.
Last week against the Chiefs, Ball was able to make Eric Berry—one of the five best safeties in the league—whiff on a tackle attempt. Ball was able to evade cornerback Marcus Cooper and may have broken his tackle attempt had he not stumbled a little bit out of his break.
These are skills that Moreno simply doesn’t have at this stage of his career. Ball is younger, more explosive, more agile and has good vision.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), there has been 15 missed tackles on Ball this season on 94 touches compared to Moreno’s 23 on 244 touches. That means that there is a missed tackle on Ball on 15.9 percent of his touches compared to just 9.4 percent on Moreno’s touches.
Moreno seems to need space to make defenders miss because nine of the missed tackles on him have been in the passing game. There have been 14 missed tackles on both Ball and Moreno in the running game despite Ball having less than half the amount of carries.
Ball is also creating more yards after contact than Moreno by nearly one-half yard per attempt. Pro Football Focus tabulates Ball’s yard per attempts after contact as 2.41 yards. Of the running backs that have played half the snaps for their team, only six are at or above 2.41 yards after contact.
|The Elusive Ball|
|Player||Yards Per Attempt||YPA After Contact||Missed Tackles||Elusive Rating|
Although it’s certainly a smaller sample, Ball is more elusive than Charles and C.J. Spiller this year, with a Pro Football Focus elusiveness rating of 37.1. Ball is also just below Matt Forte in elusiveness rating.
By comparison, Moreno is one of the least elusive running backs in the league. Moreno takes what the defense gives him but nothing more. Should the Broncos ever need to lean on the rushing game, not having a running back that can create his own yards could become an issue.
The Pass Protection Problem
A lot of people like to make a case for Moreno because he is good in pass protection, but that’s a very deceptive reason for a running back to get playing time. The question isn’t only if Moreno is a better blocker, it’s if it matters.
On average, a running back has been called upon to block just over eight times per game this season for the Broncos according to Pro Football Focus’ snap counts. In total, the running back has been asked to pass block on just 11.2 percent of Denver’s offensive plays.
Ball has been asked to pass block 23 times, and he’s allowed just two hurries. Moreno has been asked to pass block 64 times, and he’s allowed three hurries and three quarterback hits. That means that Ball has actually allowed pressure on Manning only 8.7 percent of the time compared with Moreno’s 9.4 percent pressure rate.
Even if Ball was an every-down back and never shared a carry, he would only allow about 11 pressures over the course of any entire season at his current rate. Moreno’s current rate puts him on pace for eight pressures allowed, and he has shared time with Ball.
Pass protection might matter, but it’s a bad reason to limit Ball’s opportunities. There is simply no reason Ball and Moreno shouldn’t at least be splitting the snaps at this point in the season.
Putting it Together
Last season, Ronnie Hillman was forced into duty in the playoffs when Moreno was knocked out of the game. Having a capable backup can be important because a team may need to rely on his production.
Backups become starters all the time, particularly at running back, where injuries are so common. Moreno was the backup last year when he first earned the starting job.
Ball was penciled in as the starter, but struggled enough early to force the Broncos to go with Moreno. With a month to play in the season, the Broncos are wise to be working the more-talented Ball into the offense.
The Broncos may need both Ball and Moreno to play key roles in the playoffs. While Moreno seems to do most of his damage in the passing game, Ball has the ability to do more on the ground.
When the weather gets cold, the running game needs to get hot. That means a transition to more opportunities for Ball and fewer for Moreno.
Over the last 10 years, teams playing outdoors in the playoffs are 25-6 when rushing for 150 yards and a touchdown. A lot of crazy things can happen in the playoffs, but the running game seems to be the one constant.
When a team rushes for 150 or more and scores a touchdown on the ground outdoors, it wins about 81-82 percent of the time both in the playoffs and the regular season. This is not totally unexpected, but it's a little surprising considering how pass-heavy the NFL is these days.
The Baltimore Ravens rushed for 150 yards or more and at least one touchdown in the playoffs against the Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts last year on their way to winning the Super Bowl. Teams were also 4-0 last year in the playoffs when accomplishing the same feat.
It’s hard to say the Broncos should run it more when they have Manning under center, but it’s good to know they can run it if the need should arise. That’s why it’s so smart to get Ball a lot more carries over the final four games.
If the Broncos should need to use the running game to win a game in frigid temperatures, they won’t all of the sudden be trying something new. Sunday’s game may also be the perfect opportunity for a dry run because the high temperature in Denver is expected to be just 17 degrees.
The Tennessee Titans have a good secondary but an average run defense, so the game plan should already call for more runs. As long as the Broncos aren't bent on trying to prove Manning can win in the cold with the passing game, it’s the perfect scenario.
Regardless of what the Broncos do Sunday, it’s smart to give Ball more carries over the next month to see what he can do. Ball could very well be the Broncos’ secret weapon in the playoffs—just as the team hoped he would be when it drafted him last April.