What we learned about the Broncos' backfield on Thursday night
It looked like Ronnie Hillman and rookie Montee Ball would be featured on early downs, but it was unclear who would get the bulk of the workload. Hillman has familiarity with the Broncos' offense, but Ball is generally considered the more talented player. After watching the distribution of reps in camp, some Broncos writers referred to Hillman as 1A and Ball as 1B in the backfield.
Knowshon Moreno is the most tenured player in the Broncos' backfield, and the trust that the team has in his pass protection and receiving skills was expected to get him a role on third downs and in passing situations, but nothing more.
That was all speculation, of course, as the Broncos never came out and said what they planned to do with their running backs. Fortunately for us curious fans, the Broncos were playing the first game of the season against the Baltimore Ravens on national television Thursday night, so we got to see just what unfolded in the backfield.
To the surprise of many, it was neither Hillman nor Ball who started the game at running back - it was Moreno. While one would have thought that they other two backs would filter in regularly, that was not at all the case. Moreno played 25 snaps in the first half, while Ball played four and Hillman played two. Ball ended up getting some good action down the stretch when the game was pretty much out of hand, but Moreno remained the man in Peyton Manning's backfield whenever the game was within reach for the Ravens.
It appears that what playing time in this backfield comes down to is not how much talent a runner has or what his draft status was - this backfield is all about trust. Moreno is unquestionably the best pass protector, which is something Peyton Manning puts a lot of stock into. Ball was subpar in pass protection during the preseason. Moreno may not be the most effective runner (4.0 career YPC), but the Broncos trust him to hold on to the football, unlike Hillman, who struggled with fumbles in the preseason.
It's not that surprising to see trust dictate playing time in a Peyton Manning backfield, but it is a bit surprising to see how much more the Broncos trust Moreno than the other two running backs. As long as they feel confident in Moreno's ability to protect Peyton and keep a tight grip on the football, Moreno will be the leader of the backfield.
Moreno's grip on the starting job may not last through the entire season, however. The player to watch here is Ball, who is probably the superior between-the-tackles runner. Ball has a well documented history of ball security from his days at Wisconsin, so that should not be a concern. All Ball needs to do to earn significant playing time is prove that he can be an effective blocker. If he can do that, he very well may be the starter and go-to runner on early downs.
Hillman needs to show his coaches that he can hold on to the football, and even if he does that, he'll still likely be the odd man out. His early-down skills are inferior to Ball's, while his third-down skills are inferior to Moreno's. He could factor in as a change of pace back in both roles, but don't expect any sort of consistent production out of him.
As of now, it looks like Moreno will be the leader of the committee, but I expect Ball to take over as the chairman at some point this season. Once that happens, I see Ball working early downs, Moreno on third downs, and Hillman as a somewhat versatile backup who can play in either situation.
Despite Thursday's distribution of carries, I still think Ball will be the running back to own in fantasy leagues by the end of the season, but until Ball proves that he can produce, Moreno is the only Broncos running back worth using at the flex spot in fantasy lineups.