Montee Ball's Emergence Could Be Key for Broncos in AFC Championship Game

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystJanuary 16, 2014

Dec 22, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball (28) rushes during the first quarter against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The talk all week has been about Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning vs. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and rightfully so. Except there are always other players who end up being just as important to the outcome of the games between the two great quarterbacks.

Probably the most notable “other player” in one of these games was cornerback Ty Law, who was so physical with Manning’s wide receivers in the 2003 AFC Championship Game that the NFL made a rule change that placed more emphasis on illegal defensive contact, otherwise known as the “Mel Blount Rule.” In many ways, that rule change ushered in the modern era of passing.

Don’t expect anything as significant to happen this Sunday, but running back Montee Ball could very well be the key player for the Denver Broncos. The rookie second-round draft pick was a key figure in the Broncos’ collapse against the Patriots in Week 12—and not in a good way.

Manning isn’t the only player looking for a little redemption in this game.

Ball’s fumble in the third quarter enabled the Patriots to pull within 10 points. Fumbles had been a problem earlier in the season for Ball, so he didn’t get another carry in the game. As we know, the Patriots proceeded to win the game in overtime.

Right up until the point he fumbled against the Patriots, Ball was averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and he had gained 31 yards on a screen pass on 3rd-and-20. The Broncos rushed for a total of 280 yards against the Patriots, which was a season high for them by a large margin, but Ball watched most of the second half from the sideline.

Maybe that was only part of the game plan because of the nasty weather, but it was clear that the Broncos intended to attack a poor run defense as opposed to airing it out against the Patriots in Week 12. Running back Knowshon Moreno had a career-high 37 carries for 224 yards that day, but it’s highly unlikely he can repeat the performance.  

“Whatever they’re giving us, whatever is working the best, that’s what we’re going to do,” Moreno said via the team’s official website. “I think things were just clicking (the last time). We were able to move the ball. But that was last game. We don’t know what is going to happen now in this new game.”

New England's Run Defense
Yards Per Carry AllowedYards Per Game AllowedTouchdowns Allowed
Season4.5 (25)131.4 (30)11 (11T)
Last 64.2112.86

The Patriots finished 24th in the league in yards per carry allowed and 30th in rush yards per game allowed during the regular season, but then they limited the Indianapolis Colts to 69 rushing yards on 21 carries last weekend (3.3 yards per carry). Virtually anything can happen, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.

Running the ball isn’t a bad plan Sunday—at least to take some of the pressure off the passing game. With Manning under center, it’s highly unlikely the Patriots can afford to pay too much attention to the running game. It just makes good sense to stretch an already thin defense out and make them deal with both the running and passing game.  

“We’re going to try to stay as balanced as we can,” Moreno said via the team’s official website. “Pass the ball when they’re giving it to us and try to run. Those things help you out and those things help you to win, but you’ve still got to go out there and make plays.”

When it comes down to which running back is more capable of making big plays in the running game for the Broncos, the answer is without question Ball. Moreno won’t be phased out entirely because he can block and is a good receiver out of the backfield.

Fumble concerns aside, it’s not hard to see how much better Ball has been than Moreno in the running game in recent weeks. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Ball a positive-4.7 rush grade compared to Moreno’s positive-4.2 grade, but Ball had about half the number of carries.

Ball also deserves credit for battling back from his early-season struggles, then doing it again after he fumbled in New England. Since that game, Ball has been significantly more productive. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), all of Ball’s best games have come in the six games since the Broncos played in New England.

Moreno finished 13th and Ball 14th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic that attempts to measure value per play. Given how much of Moreno’s value comes from the passing game, it’s easy to surmise that Ball is the superior runner. Ball also finished fourth in success rate, which tries to measure the consistency of a player.

Montee Ball vs. Knowshon Moreno
PlayerYPCYPC (Last 6)PFF Rush GradeDVOASuccess Rate
Knowshon Moreno4.33.8+4.28.4% (13)50% (14)
Montee Ball4.76.3+4.77.6% (14)54% (4)
Difference0.42.5.05-0.8%4%, PFF, Football Outsiders

Moreno has averaged just over 3.8 yards per carry since his 224-yard performance, while Ball has averaged 6.3 yards per carry over the same span. Last weekend against the Chargers, Moreno averaged just 3.6 yards per carry to Ball's 5.2 yards per carry.

After his fumble against the Patriots, Ball also had the best game of his young career with 13 carries for 117 yards in an important game against the Kansas City Chiefs. He's a player who has overcome a lot as a rookie and has consistently risen to the occasion. 

“It meant a lot to me—persevering, all that stuff [in] just battling through a lot of adversity that I went through [with] ball security issues and all that stuff," Ball said via the team's official website in December. "I’m just glad that I’m finally making plays for my teammates. They have trust in me. They have a lot of faith in me now I just got to continue trucking on this path.”

Every time Ball has been given the opportunity to bounce back, he has. Those opportunities have been impressive enough that it’s clear now that the team needs to get Ball more involved, and this is the perfect week to do just that.

The balanced attack the Patriots might deploy against the Broncos Sunday has been widely discussed, but the running game for the Broncos has been an afterthought. Against a team with such a weak run defense that will almost certainly be doing everything they can to stop Manning, the running game is going to have opportunities.

The Patriots let Moreno run all over the field the last time around, and Ball is even more dangerous. It wouldn’t be hard to make a case that not giving Ball any carries after his fumble may have cost the Broncos the game in New England.

On the team’s seven drives after Ball was benched, the Broncos punted five times, Manning threw an interception and the Broncos failed miserably to use the play clock to their advantage while their defense was melting down. One key first down or a breakaway run by Ball could have been the difference in a game that was decided by a field goal in overtime.

It might have taken a little longer than the Broncos anticipated for Ball to become a key contributor, but he has. Ball is finally starting to realize his potential, and it would not be a surprise if he makes a play that ends up being the difference Sunday.