That the Denver Broncos named Ronnie Hillman as their starting running back over Knowshon Moreno and rookie Montee Ball for Thursday night’s game against the Ravens was a big deal to fantasy football aficionados.
But Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees didn’t know and, with all due respect to the three main candidates to carry the ball for the Broncos, Pees didn’t really seem to care when asked about it Monday.
“It really doesn’t matter. You have to prepare for all three of them,” he said. “Two days ago, I heard Ball was going to start. And then somebody else told me they heard Moreno. We’re preparing for all three of them.”
The battle to be the primary back was one of the most scrutinized competitions in Broncos training camp this summer.
Hillman was the frontrunner to start the season at tailback, and despite coming down with a case of fumblitis in the preseason, he appears to have held off Ball, at least on the depth chart the Broncos put on their website. But Ball, who scored more rushing touchdowns than anyone in NCAA Div. I-A history, has gotten snaps with the first team in the past week.
Thrown in Moreno, who replaced the injured Willis McGahee as the lead back last November and started against the Ravens in the playoffs, and the situation becomes more muddied.
“We don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” starting weak-side linebacker Josh Bynes said. “We played against them last year and the only one that is different is Montee Ball. As far as preparing, we do a good job of watching film to know what kind of back each one of them is and what to expect from each and every one of them. That’s not going to change anything as far as what we do game-plan-wise against the backs.”
Still, Pees noted that each back has a different running style and some are better in pass protection, which was a major factor in the team’s determination to start Hillman in Week 1.
“Players have got to know who’s in the game [and] could potentially run the ball,” he said. “Are they a jump-cutter? Are they a downhill, one-cut runner? Are they a thumper? What are they? And our guys kind of know that, just like I’m sure they know about ours.”
Hillman is the most elusive of the bunch and has the skills to play on third down. Ball is still an unknown at the NFL level, but the second-round pick would be the one-cut runner. Moreno, a former first-round pick of Josh McDaniels, is nothing spectacular, but he was a reliable player last season, which means a lot when Peyton Manning is the quarterback.
All could play a role against the Ravens, but the Broncos use their no-huddle so much, substitutions in-drive may be limited.
But regardless of who is in the backfield for the Broncos, the Ravens know that stuffing the running game will be critical. When these two teams met in the regular season, Moreno rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. But even more importantly, the threat of the run allowed Manning to pick apart the Ravens’ pass defense with play-action passes.
“You definitely want to talk the run game out of the equation,” Bynes said. “When you stop the run, it makes them one-dimensional and that helps us to play good defense and not be over-reactive and make bad plays and bad decisions.”