ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – Individually, their numbers don’t look like much. Collectively, the Broncos running backs are getting closer to giving Peyton Manning the help he needs.
For the first time in four weeks, no Denver running back fumbled. Meanwhile, Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball and the newest addition to the Broncos running rotation, C.J. Anderson, combined for 192 yards in offense to help Denver top Washington 45-21 on Sunday.
All of that is a good sign for a team that heads into its bye this week and will return in November, when the weather starts getting cold and passing games around the league tend to cool off, as well.
“Whoever is in there at any given time, we’re calling the same plays and we expect them all to be able to handle the run plays and the pass plays and catch the ball out of the backfield,” Manning said after throwing for 354 yards in Sunday’s win to give him 2,919 at the halfway point – a record through eight games.
Ah, if it were only that simple.
Since Manning’s arrival turned Denver into the most prolific offense in the league, the ground game has become something of an afterthought, and that may have cost the Broncos a trip to the Super Bowl last season.
Missing Moreno and Willis McGahee with injuries, the Broncos tried to run the clock out in the playoffs against Baltimore using third-down back Ronnie Hillman. It didn’t work, and the rest is history.
Looking for more heft and consistency this season, the Broncos drafted Ball in the second round and made Hillman, who beefed up in the offseason, the No. 1 in training camp. But Ball had fumbling trouble and Hillman struggled to find his stride. Moreno, third on the depth chart this summer, got the starting job and has turned out to the most consistent presence in the running game so far this season.
Against the Redskins, he carried 14 times for 44 yards and was Manning’s most consistent receiving target. Moreno caught all six passes thrown his way for a total of 89 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown on a screen pass for Denver’s go-ahead points in the fourth quarter. The Broncos also went to him on fourth-and-2 from the Washington 20, while trailing 21-7. Moreno got 5 yards there and Denver went on to score a touchdown to start their 38-0 game-ending run.
“When you keep us on the field and we get those first downs to keep the ball moving to get those points on the board, that’s all that matters at the end of the day,” Moreno said.
Anderson, the undrafted rookie from California, suited up for the first time this season and showed glimpses of the promise he flashed in the preseason before hurting his knee at the end of training camp. His best carry was an 11-yard gain and he finished with four rushes for 22 yards.
Coach John Fox didn’t guarantee Anderson would play again but said his debut was solid.
“It wasn’t too big for him,” Fox said.
Meanwhile, Ball ran 11 times for 37 yards and held onto the football. He lost two fumbles over the first three games of the season and saw his playing time reduced significantly. His first lost fumble came in a goal-line situation against the Giants in Week 2. This time, the Broncos went to him on second-and-goal from the 4 and he bulled his way in for his first NFL touchdown.
“I’m very proud of myself for keeping pushing, but it was collectively an entire unit of them blocking the big guys up front and me following right behind them,” Ball said.
The odd man out for now is Hillman, a game day inactive for the first time since Week 3 last season. He was handed that demotion after fumbling in two consecutive games. It’s hard to ignore the parallels to Moreno, who fumbled in Week 2 against Atlanta last year and didn’t get into uniform again for nine games, after McGahee went out with a knee injury.
Moreno probably won’t get another break like that for a long time.
“Knowshon’s done a terrific job in the first half of the season,” Fox said.
Notes: TE Julius Thomas, who left Sunday’s game with an ankle sprain, tweeted Monday, “Just left the facility MRI showed it wasn’t a high ankle sprain so I won’t be down long. Be back soon (hash)CantWait.” … The combined record of the Broncos’ first eight opponents was 22-38 (.366) while the combined record of their next eight is 38-18 (.678). Those stats for the Chiefs are similar. First eight: 20-41 (.327); Next eight: 35-24 (.593). … The Broncos will practice Tuesday and Wednesday before getting the rest of the bye week off. Fox stopped short of saying Manning, whose ankle kept him out of a practice last week, would be held out of the workouts, but did say, “he’s not going to get a whole lot of reps the next two days. I’ll tell you that.”
By EDDIE PELLS, AP National Writer
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