Though the Denver Broncos reached the Super Bowl last season, they will look like a very different team in 2014.
Knowshon Moreno, Eric Decker, Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips are just some of the guys who are no longer with the team, while free agents DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, Emmanuel Sanders and Aqib Talib were all brought in.
The Broncos have a loaded roster capable of winning the majority of their games. But aside from Peyton Manning, who will put up his usual gaudy statistics, running back Montee Ball will be the key to success this season.
And if you're the Broncos, success can only be measured by a victory in the Super Bowl.
Manning threw for a single-season NFL record in passing yardage last year. He also tossed 55 touchdown passes. The team had five players score at least 10 touchdowns.
Moreno even surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground.
Even so, the team anointed last year's second-round draft pick, Ball, as its running back of the future, allowing Moreno to leave via free agency.
Following the Super Bowl, the word of the offseason in Denver should be "physical". That was the main reason it was dominated by Seattle last February.
Ball gives the Broncos a better chance to field a more physical rushing attack. Though Moreno had a career year last season, many of his touches came out of the shotgun formation.
Nothing new in the latest Denver Post Montee Ball story. Just a reiteration of how much faith DEN has in him: http://t.co/xNLQNog1Fd— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) June 12, 2014
Against Seattle, he carried the ball just five times for 17 yards.
Toward the end of the season, Ball was splitting duty with Moreno, and it was his performance in those games that convinced Denver he would be the starter moving forward.
Ball seemed to grow stronger as the season went along and he became more familiar with the offense. In five of the team's last six regular-season games, he averaged over five yards per carry.
He also had his first career 100-yard rushing effort against Kansas City, gaining 117 yards on just 13 carries.
Ball is an explosive player who came to the NFL after posting video game-like numbers in college at Wisconsin. He has exemplified the ability to be a workhorse back before.
|2013 Statistics (Last 6 games plus postseason)|
|Player||Rush Attempts||Rushing Yards||Yards Per Carry||Touchdowns|
What makes Ball even more important to the team is the fact that, behind him, the Broncos don't have any proven depth.
Ronnie Hillman seems to be one fumble away from being out of the league, and while C.J. Anderson has talent, we have yet to see much of it in the NFL.
That means Ball will take a very large portion of the carries this season. On top of that, he will be asked to catch the ball out of the backfield and help keep Manning upright as well.
Moreno's strength was pass protection, and Ball will need to slide into that role. However, Denver has confidence in his ability to do so. If not, there's no way it would leave Manning in his hands.
That makes Ball an indispensable member of the team at this point.
Manning is going to throw for a lot of yards. The wide receivers are going to have several big games. Because of Ball, though, Manning shouldn't have to shoulder so much responsibility.
No one should be able to tell Manning how important a solid running back is to a championship better than his own boss, John Elway.
Remember when Elway took his team to all those Super Bowls in the late 1980s, only to be blown out each time?
Those teams made the Super Bowl for almost no other reason than Elway's incredible individual talent. Later in his career, he got a new teammate in Terrell Davis.
|John Elway Super Bowl Appearances|
|Years||Team Rush Attempts||Team Rushing Yards||Combined Score||Results|
|1986, '87, '89||53||213||40-136||3 Losses|
|1997, '98||75||300||65-43||2 Wins|
Without Davis, it is very likely Elway would have never won a Super Bowl.
In fact, in the year Manning achieved his lone Super Bowl victory, his Indianapolis Colts were No. 2 in rushing yards in the playoffs, averaging 151 yards per game.
Last season, the Broncos suffered the same fate as many of those old Denver teams. Players don't win championships, teams do. Seattle proved that last season.
Manning was the MVP of the league, but Seattle wasn't intimidated. It came out, punched Denver in the mouth and never looked back.
The Broncos can combat this by becoming a more balanced team. Sure, it's fun to see Manning throw for seven touchdowns in a game, but the Broncos need to find more than one way to win a game.
Ball is the answer to all of these questions.
Utilizing him in some traditional run packages with Manning under center is the way to go. The Broncos' offensive line can and will be physical.
In last year's final game, Seattle seemed to know what was coming. It was never fooled by any of Manning's pre-snap verbiage. Denver just needs to line up and play a little smashmouth football.
With a healthy, improved defense, the Broncos can easily become one of the NFL's most physical teams. It all starts with running Ball right at the opposing defense.
Yes, the NFL has become a passing league. You hear it all the time. However, Seattle and San Francisco—two of the league's most physical rushing and defensive teams—have appeared in the last two Super Bowls.
That's no coincidence. The teams that do it well can still dominate the league the old-fashioned way: by playing solid defense and running the football.