ENGLEWOOD, Colo –One of the biggest stories of the Broncos' 2011 season was the team's league-leading rushing attack.
Starting running back Willis McGahee is coming off a career year and Denver also returns Lance Ball, the second-most productive player in the Broncos backfield last season. Behind an offensive line currently missing only one starter from last season, those backs alone would justify high expectations for the running game.
But with the return of fourth-year man Knowshon Moreno, who started just two games last season before an ACL injury, and rookie Ronnie Hillman's addition via the NFL Draft, Denver's backfield has only gotten deeper. Hillman has yet to play in a preseason game due to a hamstring injury, but participated fully in each of the team's practices this week. Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy said it's only a matter of time before coaches and fans get their first glimpse of Hillman in a Broncos uniform.
"He's getting better every day, and he's working hard to get back to where he needs to be," McCoy said. "We're taking it one day at a time. That's up to 'Greek' (Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos) and everybody else to decide when you cut him loose and how many plays he plays and all that kind of stuff."
With five carries for 20 yards and one catch for 6 more yards in the Broncos preseason opener at Chicago, Moreno appears to have put his knee injury behind him. McCoy said he has been impressed by Moreno's diligence since his injury, and added that McGahee's presence has played a pivotal role in Moreno's recovery.
"Knowshon's done a nice job," McCoy said. "He's worked extremely hard. That's tough, coming off an injury like that, but the great thing is, I think, he's got a great example ahead of him with Willis. Willis had a bad injury a long time ago and he came back, and look where he's at now. I think that's helped Knowshon a little bit through the whole process of everything, and he's grinding it out."
The crowd at the running back position likely means jobs are on the line. The Broncos' remaining preseason games will help McCoy and the rest of the offensive coaching staff decide who will take the field for the season opener Sept. 9th against Pittsburgh.
"I think we've got a lot of talent there, and that's a good problem to have," McCoy said. "When you've got depth, that's what we're looking for at every position. So it's one of those deals where we're going to come down to the final roster. We have the 53 (players), and as an organization, we'll figure out, 'These are the best guys.' Regardless of how many guys we take, there's not a set number on that now, because we've got a couple weeks left of preseason, and everything always works itself out. (Players have) two more opportunities to prove (themselves) and what (they) can do, and we're going to have a tough decision to make."
EMBRACING THE CHALLENGE
San Francisco enters the 2012 season as one of the most respected teams in the league after nearly making it to the Super Bowl last year. As the only 2011 playoff team that Denver will face this preseason, the 49ers will provide stiff competition, something Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio relishes.
"It's a good offense, a good football team coming in," Del Rio said. "We feel like we're a good football team, so we ought to be able to get some good work together. We'll have plenty to evaluate. From my standpoint, I want to see us continue to work on the things that we have been working on, that we're stressing, that we're emphasizing."
San Francisco's defense finished fourth in the NFL in yards allowed a year ago and boasts a number of feared players in its front seven, including linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive lineman Justin Smith. McCoy said the third week of the preseason is a perfect time for a matchup with a quality opponent.
"We go in each week trying to do what we want to do offensively through the preseason," McCoy said. "We outline the kind of plan from Week 1 through Week 4 of what we want to get accomplished, and (we) really concentrate on what we're doing. We're trying to install our system the way we've been going through camp.
"(San Francisco) is going to be a great test for us. It's a great third game to have, because they've got one of the best defenses in the league, so we've got a challenge ahead of us."
DEL RIO EAGER FOR SON'S VALOR DEBUT
Most of the coaching staff will be spending the hours between now and Sunday's 2 p.m. kickoff against San Francisco putting the finishing touches on the team's game plan. But for Del Rio, the tilt with the 49ers isn't the only game he's anxious to see. Del Rio's son Luke, a quarterback at Valor Christian High School, kicks off his senior season Friday night. His father will spend the game doing his best to contain his excitement.
"I'm probably more anxious and nervous about that game than I've ever been for myself, playing or coaching," Del Rio said. "It's different. Parents out there all understand when your kid is doing it, it's much tougher. I'll do my best to keep my poise in the stands and root him on."
One thing in Luke's favor has been an offseason spent soaking up knowledge from quarterback Peyton Manning. Del Rio said his son took full advantage of the opportunity to work with the team throughout training camp.
"He really appreciated it very much," Del Rio said. "The first day that Peyton invited him and (Head) Coach (John) Fox cleared it, Luke was up the next day at like 5:30," Del Rio laughed.
Manning, who had a similar experience at Saints training camp as a high schooler, said Luke's time at Dove Valley should prove invaluable.
"I know Luke, this will be a great experience for him, just listening to meetings, hearing about different ideas on coverages," Manning said. "I'm looking forward to keeping up with him this year. He's a great kid."