The Sports Xchange

NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT

Even after Montee Ball underwent an emergency appendectomy Monday, there remained little question about whether he would be the Denver Broncos' featured running back this season.

Advances in that procedure ensure that Ball's recovery time will be quick. He is expected back at practice in two weeks and may even see some preseason playing time. Barring unforeseen complications, his return by Week 1 is virtually assured.

But the scrum between Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson to be Ball's backup now takes center stage. Hillman is listed as the Broncos' second-team running back behind Ball, giving him the first crack at practice repetitions. But Anderson, a second-year player who emerged from the undrafted wilderness to make the 53-man roster last year, has a chance to nudge the 2012 third-round pick aside.

Hillman needs to capitalize. His career has been a disappointment so far, plagued by fumbles and a lackadaisical attitude. He tumbled so far last year that he was deactivated from the Broncos' entire postseason run. Instead, the diligent Anderson was the third-team running back behind Knowshon Moreno and Ball.

But Hillman worked his way back up the depth chart to No. 2 behind Ball this year. In the last few months, Hillman has re-committed himself. Since 2012, he has been the Broncos' fastest running back; now he has better vision and awareness.

"I have seen great growth," Broncos coach John Fox said. "I think he's been a different guy in the meeting rooms with a full offseason this year and attacking it the way he did. He is starting to see the benefits of that here on the field. I have seen a drastically improved player."

But Anderson has improved, as well. Building off glimpses of his work late in the regular season and the playoffs, he has been particularly effective in blitz pickup -- a crucial attribute in an offense in which the running back's first, second and third priorities are the same: keep Peyton Manning upright.

Anderson picked up a blitz from Nate Irving during the Broncos' scrimmage Aug. 2 and successfully kept safety T.J. Ward from Manning two days later. He attributes his success to playbook study.

"It's just been helping out a lot and it pays off," Anderson said.

Anderson understands that Hillman has some advantages, but the 5-foot-8, 215-pounder brings some of his own.

"He's a lot faster. I guess that's the best way to say it. He's a lot faster," Anderson said. "People don't understand that Ronnie's got a lot of toughness. He can put it in between tackles and break tackles because he's fast and that works for him.

"As for me, I'm just more of a gritty type of back -- down and dirty. I love the contact. That's how me and Ronnie change the pace and we're just going from here. That's how me and Ronnie are different, but we're the best of friends."

Still, friends, even though they're fighting each other for the same job.


NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES

--Defensive tackle Marvin Austin was perceived to be on the scrap heap after the Cowboys waived him with an injured designation last year. Dallas was his third team in 2013, and with looming back surgery, it seemed as though it would be his last.

Austin had struggled with weakness in his leg that began in the 2012 season, after he'd returned from a torn pectoral muscle while still with the Giants. A year later, after being cut by the Giants, signed and cut by the Dolphins and picked up by the Cowboys, Austin was warming up for a game against the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 3, when he realized he could barely stand up.