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Beyond Ball, RB Competition Wide Open

Posted Jun 6, 2014

Montee Ball is atop the depth chart, but the competition for playing time at RB could be among the most heated this summer.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As is usually the case in the modern NFL, the running back duties will be handled via a collaboration. And although whoever ends up as the No. 1 running back will receive the bulk of the work, at some point, the Broncos' hopes will rest on the work of a reserve, whether it's plunging toward the goal line, catching a pass out of the backfield or, most likely, correctly diagnosing a blitz and keeping Peyton Manning upright.

"The way I look at our running backs is, we're going to have two to three guys playing every game, and whoever the first guy on the field is, it's irrelevant," said offensive coordinator Adam Gase. "I mean, you never know, it might be Virgil Green one game."

Green has made cameo appearances in the backfield and even had the first carry of his career in January's AFC Championship Game, gaining six yards. But the focus of the competition is on the players listed at running back, and the understanding that the Broncos will continue to substitute liberally.

This is why the running back competition could be the team's liveliest of the summer. It doesn't stop with Montee Ball, the No. 2 runner last year who slides into the top spot; the returning reserves, C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, lead the scrum for the rest of the playing time.

"We're going to have two to three guys that are going to contribute every game, and whatever their skill set is, we're going to make sure that we use them to the best of their ability," said Gase.

Hillman and Anderson are in similar spots, but the perspective of both couldn't be much different.

The speedy Hillman wants redemption; he'd rather forget about the 2013 season, at least from an individual perspective. He had a crucial goal-to-go fumble at Indianapolis in Week 7 and did not play in nine of 19 total games.

"I probably got a little relaxed last year, but it's not going to happen again," he said, adding that he felt he relaxed going into the season, and, "it carried over."

It led to a step backward for Hillman, who watched while Anderson dressed for the playoffs. Hillman is happy to hit the reset button and recommit himself this offseason. Hillman was inactive for the entire postseason, while Anderson was the No. 3 running back in the playoffs and even saw a few snaps late in Super Bowl XLVIII. Hillman would prefer to erase 2013; Anderson wants to build off a year that was bigger than he could have dreamed.

"Definitely not," Anderson replied when asked whether he could have envisioned being in his current position a year after going undrafted. "It was make the team, play special teams and when they call your number, just be ready to go. Now, it's, 'We're going to call your number, so make sure you're ready to go -- and make sure you can play at the level we know you can play at.' It feels good."

Anderson's burst makes you lean forward in your seat, or stand at attention if you're watching from the sideline. That explosion caught the eyes of onlookers at training camp last summer, and then blossomed in his lone preseason game at San Francisco before he injured his knee in practice the following week.

But to earn more playing time, Anderson knows he must continue to absorb the offense and capitalize on the repetitions he gets standing next to Manning.

"Last year when I got my chance out there with Peyton, I was a little shaky, a little nervous," Anderson said. "This year, it's so much easier. Whenever Peyton wants to make a call or change anything, I know what's going on, and I see the same things he sees, and I can play a lot faster and really show my ability, instead of just showing flashes like I did last year."

The biggest leap for Anderson and Ball, the two second-year runners, is in their absorption of the offense, particularly in identifying pass rushes -- or the lack thereof -- and quickly adapting.

"Last year, I was guessing; I'd probably look at my guy an extra half a second more just to make sure he wasn't coming," said Anderson. "Now I can be, like, 'He's not coming; I can get out fast on a route."

Ball started to turn that corner late last year, beginning on Dec. 1 at Kansas City, a week after a third-quarter fumble at New England.

“Complete turnaround. Confidence, speed of the game. Instead of being a little nervous in the backfield with Peyton, now I’m completely calm," Ball said. "I can anticipate some of the calls he’s going to make, which like I said, allows me to play faster.

"It started happening around Week 12 and you started to see it. I started playing better. A lot more confidence. Like I said, I wish I had done that early on because I always tell myself, imagine where I would have been at, at the end of the year last year, if I started fast. So that’s what I’m doing this year, starting fast and keeping it going every week.”

The Broncos learned late last season and in the playoffs that Ball could hold up well with additional work; by the AFC Championship Game, Ball and Knowshon Moreno were interchangeable; each was worthy of trust and capable of carrying a heavy burden. This offseason will be about learning who can be platooned with Ball.

And it might well come down to who Manning can lean upon the most. Because Job No. 1 in a quarterback-centric game is to protect the passer, Gase and Manning are looking for the running back who is most on the same page. Of the veteran trio, Anderson has the fewest snaps alongside Manning, but he's catching up now.

As Anderson notes, Manning expects more of him now. It's an extra weight to carry, but in this offense, this responsibility is what you want; it means you're headed in the right direction.

"Today, if you mess up, he's probably on you a lot harder. Last year, if you messed up, he's coaching you and talking to you, because you were young, and it was your first year in the offense," Anderson said. "Now it's like, 'Look, I know you know. So I might remind you once in a while, but I'm going to shut up, we're going to play football, and if you mess up, I'm going to get on you.'

"Luckily I haven't had him yelling at me yet, and I just want to keep that going through OTAs and training camp."

Anderson, Ball and Hillman have adapted to the perfectionism inherent in the Broncos' offense. If they apply it to game time, the Broncos will have little to worry about at their position -- no matter who gets the call on a given snap.

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