It’s Ball’s time in 2014. Montee Ball was a second-round pick by the Denver Broncos in 2013 NFL draft. The idea was to groom him to be the eventual starter at the running back position. After a rookie season that saw him improve as the year went on, that time is now.
He began his rookie season splitting time as a backup behind starter Knowshon Moreno. Ball was losing touches to Ronnie Hillman and looked tentative as a runner.
Instead of hitting the hole hard, he was not patient as a runner and too often ran into the backs of his blockers as no hole had yet to develop.
Ball was raw in the passing game as well. As a receiver out of the backfield, he tried to do too much after the catch and did not play to his strengths of determination and efficiency.
He was also suspect in pass protection. He missed a few blocks that caused Peyton Manning to get hit in a way the team was not happy with. He also put the rock on the ground too many times.
However, as the year went on, Ball started to flourish as a runner, receiver and pass-blocker.
Over the final six weeks of 2013, only Jamaal Charles (6.6) averaged more yards per carry than Ball (6.5, 52-337). Ball also led the NFL in percentage of rushes for first downs (40.4 percent) and carries of 10 or more yards (21.2 percent) during the final six weeks of 2013.
This statistical output was a sign of things to come. He is on the league’s most high-powered units, and he could be a key cog in the machine that is the Broncos offense.
Here’s a look back—and a look forward—regarding Denver's starting back.
2013 in Review
Some rookies take time to get up to speed in the NFL, and Ball was no different. He began the year excited to prove himself, but he made more mistakes than quality plays. Ball had to hit a low point before he came back with a vengeance.
Weeks 1 through 6
The first six weeks of the season saw Ball struggle to make much of an impact. Broncos fans did not see him much, and the plays they did see lacked a “wow” factor.
He only played 90 snaps in the first six weeks of the season. That was out of a possible 460 snaps for the Broncos offense. He was just not that involved with the offense, because the team couldn’t trust him.
Through six weeks he ran the ball 43 times for 139 rushing yards. That was good for an average of 3.2 yards per carry.
Ball lost two fumbles over the first six weeks of the season. Those limited his playing time with the Broncos. In Week 5 against the Dallas Cowboys and Week 6 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he played in 13 snaps combined.
He was targeted four times in six games, hauling in two of those passes for 27 yards. The other two passes were bad drops in Week 6 against the Jaguars.
He scored an NCAA-record 77 career rushing touchdowns in college at Wisconsin, but through the first six weeks of the season, Ball hadn’t scored a single touchdown for the Broncos.
He wasn’t living up to the hype, but the Broncos had patience with their young back. Eventually, that patience would pay off.
Week 7 Playing Special Teams
The game against the Indianapolis Colts was a low point on the season for Ball. He did not receive a single carry or get a single target as a receiver out of the backfield.
Instead, he played special teams. He did not complain about the demotion but worked to prove that he would do whatever the team asked of him. He ended up recording one tackle as a special teams player that week.
A fumble near the goal line by Ronnie Hillman would open the door for Ball to prove that he could be counted on as a runner.
The Broncos lost the game against the Colts, 39-33. It was their first loss of the season and occurred only two weeks from their bye. The Broncos came home to play Washington the next week, and Ball had a new role.
At a time when team confidence seemed low in the rookie, he began to come through for his team. The turnaround began in Week 8 at home against Washington.
His stat line won’t blow you away (11 carries, 37 yards rushing), but he was able to score the first rushing touchdown of his pro career. Touchdowns were such a big part of his game, so it seemed like scoring helped surge his life’s blood.
In Week 11 versus the Kansas City Chiefs, Ball continued to show off his ability to break the plane. He scored two touchdowns in that home game.
His most rushing yards in a single game would come on the road against the Chiefs in Week 13. He carried the ball 13 times for 117 yards. He had the same number of 100-yard games (one) in 2013 as starter Knowshon Moreno did.
In addition to getting more carries for the team, Ball was also targeted 18 times over the last six games of the season. He ended up catching 15 of those targets for 102 yards to finish off the regular season.
What Has Improved
After a slow start, Ball really took off over the last month of the regular season in 2013. He has improved his all-around game during his time with the Broncos.
As a runner, he is now more patient. He will wait for his blocks to fully develop in front of him before bursting upfield through the hole. He “presses the hole” by watching and anticipating where linebackers are going to be in pursuit at the second level. While pressing the hole, he is also aware when cutback lanes are opening up.
As a receiver, he has improved his hands. He is taking the place of Moreno, one of the better receiving backs in the league. Moreno caught 60 passes last year, and Ball may have the opportunity to catch at least 40 passes in 2014.
Perhaps most importantly, Ball has improved as a pass-blocker. Protecting Manning is priority No. 1 in Denver. With his better understanding of technique, Ball is capable of being a quality pass-protector.
What Still Needs Work
Ball has made several improvements as a pro, but he still has work to do to play up to his potential.
Ball security has to be the top issue he needs to fix. His fumbles last year caused him to get off to a slow start. He needs to hang onto the rock this year to avoid getting in the doghouse again.
What Is Ball Saying?
Ball is excited about his opportunity this season, but he’s not approaching the offseason as if he’s wrapped up the starting job.
“You can’t, you can’t go in assuming that you’re going to be No. 1, because it’s such a fast game, and in practices and on the field, they can flip the depth chart in a second. I really took that to heart,” Ball said.
“So I really told myself I have to prepare like I’m fighting for the No. 1 spot, which will make the offense better, which will make the team better, and make the running backs behind me better.”
He appreciates running with the first-team offense during minicamp. “It’s great. The more support, the better. You can never have too much support. So it feels great. But for me, I tend to just focus on what I can control, which is don’t let people down. Don’t let people down and do what I can.”
Ball certainly notices the differences from last season to this season.
“Complete turnaround—confidence, speed of the game. Instead of being a little nervous in the backfield with [QB] Peyton [Manning], now I’m completely calm. I can anticipate some of the calls he’s going to make, which like I said, allows me to play faster.”
Ball is larger than he was as a rookie, mostly in the upper body. He says he put on the added weight in anticipation of a larger role. Currently at 220 pounds, he is working on other assets to help his game.
“My focus is to really, really harp on the flexibility, which will prevent injuries and will allow for me to play faster, run faster. And upper body strength, for protection.”
What Are the Coaches Saying?
Both head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase have praised Ball this offseason.
Fox talked about what he’s looking for from Ball and other second-year players on the roster.
“You’re looking for improvement. You’re looking for improvement from season to season, meeting to meeting, practice to practice. I think you don’t stay the same in this league—you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse,” Fox said.
“You don’t stay the same. So that’s what you look for and it’s all part of the process when you pick your final 53 for the 2014 roster this year.”
Gase commented on Ball’s improvement as a rookie. “[Ball made] big strides. I’d say he’d probably be the one guy [who] made the most improvement. And to see him make the next jump in his second year, we’re looking forward to that.”
The second-year coordinator also expressed confidence when asked about Ball making plays as a receiver like Moreno did in 2013.
“I think the whole group of running backs, I feel real confident in the way they catch the ball. Montee has proven to me, over last year and so far this year, that his hands have gotten much better than what they were—at least [from] what we thought coming out of college. So, I think that whole group, we feel very confident as far as receiving in the passing game.”
Gase also talked about what it takes for Ball to have better ball security in his second season as a pro.
“Patience is a good point to bring up as far as the ball security. Guys really hurry themselves, then all of a sudden they get a little lackadaisical with the ball. We have to do a better job as a group with that. That was a big downfall for us early, where the ball was on the ground way too much. It’s almost two seasons in a row and we have to address that right away,” Gase said. “We’ve got to be so much better as far as holding onto the ball as a group.”
Things are looking good for Ball in his second season as a pro. The Broncos have been talking about having more offensive balance this year. They want to use the ground game a little bit more, and that means more carries for Ball.
Last year Moreno had 241 carries. This year, Ball could go beyond 250 carries on the year. With his toughness between the tackles, he should rush for more yards per carry than Moreno did last year (4.3).
In 2013 Moreno ran against six (or fewer) defenders in the box on 79.7 percent of his carries. Ball should be able to take better advantage of those types of defensive fronts.
A projection of 260 carries, 1,275 yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, 40 receptions, 350 yards and two receiving touchdowns sounds about right for the second-year pro.
Running back is a specialized position now in the NFL. Many teams look to multiple backs in order to fit in the offense. Running back by committee has just become a way of life in today’s game.
Ball is one of the few players in the league who can be a full-time running back.
He has the size to hold up between the tackles and gets stronger as the game goes on. Running against defensive fronts featuring six or fewer defenders in the box could help him become a real force for the Broncos on the ground. This offensive balance could put defenses on their toes even more when playing against the Broncos.
Ball has improved his hands and concentration as a receiver. While he may not catch 60 passes like Moreno did last year, he could easily catch 40 passes in 2014. This means the team can rely on him to move the chains in more ways than one.
The Broncos should use him as their featured runner, and his workload could put him near the top of the leaderboard in terms of all-purpose yardage. Ball may not lead the league in rushing, but counting on him for 1,200 yards or more sounds about right.
He could be the best back the Broncos have had since the days of Terrell Davis. We’ll see if Ball can become a star with the Broncos in 2014.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.