ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos lead the league in an exhaustive list of offensive categories: Points, yards, passing, first downs, third down efficiency. Oh, and fumbles.
What once looked like a quirk — an odd curiosity for the league’s most prolific offense — is now turning into a trend.
What once looked like a nuisance — one or two fewer scoring opportunities each week for a team that was scoring plenty — has now cost the Broncos a game.
Denver’s four turnovers, which included three lost fumbles, led to 17 New England points last Sunday in a 34-31 overtime loss.
“Regardless of how good you are, that’s the kind of thing that can really cripple you and we’ve got to protect the football better,” interim coach Jack Del Rio said.
Heading into Sunday’s game at Kansas City, Denver (9-2) has fumbled a league-leading 26 times and lost 16. That’s six more fumbles and four more lost than the next-worst teams on the list. All that is part of Denver’s minus-3 turnover ratio, second-worst among the 11 teams who own or share the lead in their respective divisions.
Leading the way: Peyton Manning, who has fumbled 10 times and lost six. That statistic is skewed, of course, because quarterbacks almost always fumble more given the number of times they handle the ball.
The real ‘X’ factor as the Broncos head into the homestretch of the season are the numbers farther down the list and what, for the past two seasons at least, has been Denver’s method of dealing with those who can’t hang on.
Six weeks ago, Ronnie Hillman fumbled for the second straight game; he hasn’t been on the active roster since.
“It can happen anywhere. You won’t see it coming,” Hillman said. “It’s mechanics and just keeping it wrapped up. Having it in your mind that you’re going to get up and you’re going to have the ball.”
Rookie Montee Ball carried the ball 31 times over the first three weeks, but lost two fumbles over that span, too. He got only 35 carries over the next seven games. His carries started increasing again at around the same time Hillman disappeared and Ball was hitting stride last week — 40 yards on seven carries. Then, he lost a fumble in the third quarter that led to New England’s second touchdown. Ball wasn’t seen again that night.
“I let a lot of people down,” he said. “But you’ve got to move on. I’m just going back to the basics, not taking ball-handling drills for granted and I’m not going to put the ball on the ground.”
For advice on how to handle fumbling and demotions, Hillman and Ball only need look down the row in the locker room at Knowshon Moreno.
Moreno, who rushed for a career-high 224 yards last week, was banished to the inactive list for eight straight games after fumbling last season in Week 2. Injuries provided him with a second chance and he closed out the season as the starter. His dependability as a blocker, pass catcher and, yes, sure-handed ball carrier is what gave him — and has helped him keep — the starting nod this year. He’s fumbled it a grand total of once, and recovered it himself, since he came back from his two-month benching.
But how many more 37-carry nights, the likes of which he had against New England, can Moreno stomach? Big question now: Who on the list of flawed backups — rookie C.J. Anderson hasn’t been charged with a fumble yet but has been involved in two bad exchanges with Manning — do the Broncos trust to spell Moreno?
“I have great trust in my entire room,” running backs coach Eric Studesville said. “It’s a talented room. … The young guys, they’re going to get better and better. And we emphasize it all the time: ‘Hey, our responsibility is to get up with the ball at the end of every down.’ They know we’re going to work on it. And they all know the importance of it. But somewhere in that process, we’ve got to get that done.”
Finally, there is the ongoing saga of Trindon Holliday. The fleet-footed return man was available on waivers last season in part because the Houston Texans got tired of watching him coughing up the football.
In Denver, he has returned kicks and punts for six touchdowns, while also fumbling the ball nine times in 22 games.
He bobbled a pair in windy conditions last week against New England, and lost one, which sparked the Broncos to replace him with Wes Welker, the supposedly more sure-handed catcher. Welker, however, was the return man for the game-losing turnover; he failed to signal his teammates to get away from a bouncing punt quickly enough. Teammate Tony Carter ran into the ball and New England recovered. It was Denver’s fourth turnover of the night.
Earlier this week, Del Rio signaled that Holliday would be back on the field Sunday against the Chiefs.
The coach also reiterated that, despite what the stats may say, the Broncos work on ball protection as much as they ever had.
“We are preaching it. We are coaching it,” Del Rio said. “I believe in the guys we have. I believe we can be better at it. We just have to be.”
BY EDDIE PELLS, AP National Writer
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