Denver Broncos | News

Replacing Montee Ball will be a group effort

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **When Sunday's game with the New York Jets arrives, expect the solution for replacing the injured Montee Ball to incorporate Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson and rookie Juwan Thompson -- assuming Thompson is available after missing Wednesday's practice and being limited Thursday with a knee problem.

"We'll lean on all three of them," Head Coach John Fox said.

Prior to succumbing the third quarter last Sunday, Ball had 55 of the Broncos' 69 carries by running backs. After he left, Hillman had 14 rushes and Thompson three, with Anderson watching from the sideline as one of the Broncos' seven inactive players.

All three are expected to be in uniform Sunday, if Thompson is healthy. That would be enough for Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase, who thinks the answers to the questions at the position reside in a trio that knows nothing else as pros but orange and blue.

"I like the three guys we've got," Gase said. "I like that group. It's a sharp group and they run hard and we just have to make sure we're on it this week because this is probably one of our tougher matchups as far as scheme-wise."

The dominance of the Jets' front seven, particularly defensive ends Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson, makes it all the more essential that the Broncos find the best back for the day and ride him as long as possible.

After a big week, the wide receivers' focus is sharp as ever. Check out the action at Thursday's practice.

"I think whoever has the hot hand will really get it," Anderson said. "You never know how Ronnie's going to play; you never know how Juwan's going to play; you never know how I'm going to play.

"We're just all going to be ready to go. And as long as 18 (Peyton Manning) trusts us back there, I think everything is going to be fine."

That trust will depend on pass protection above all else. It takes time to get that right, and sometimes a little help from the quarterback, as was the case on Manning's 12-yard touchdown pass to Julius Thomas in the fourth quarter Sunday, when he guided Thompson to monitor Arizona's Matt Shaughnessy, who rushed from the edge. Thompson took care of the veteran linebacker, and Manning had enough time to complete the pass.

"As far as knowing what to do, these guys do a pretty good job and they're on the right guys," said Gase.

And that includes Hillman, whose blocking has been under scrutiny since he was drafted in 2012.

Hillman said this offseason he was "a little heavier" than his listed weight of 195 pounds, but he's not going to be in the 225-pound range like Thompson and Anderson. Their body types are built for blocking. But Gase has seen progress in Hillman's ability to use technique to compensate for a disadvantage in bulk.

"I think Ronnie doesn't get enough credit for the fact that he'll go up there and meet a guy and he doesn't get rocked back," Gase said. "For his size, a lot of guys think they're just going to run over him. For whatever reason, he has that power to be able to sustain his blocks.

"But the other two guys are thicker guys to begin with and they do a good job of staying stout but they've made so many strides, and right now, I feel good about where we're at on protection and those guys being able to step up and block linebackers."

Anderson has developed as a blocker, with the groundwork laid during his brief bursts of action last year. His work was impressive enough to get him on the active 46-man roster for the entire 2013 postseason, and the first three games of this year.

That changed last Sunday, when he was inactive for the first time since Week 17 of last season.

"I just try not to get down on myself," Anderson said. "I know what I can do when I get the ball in my hands. I know what I can do when I get in the game with Peyton and protecting him. So I'll just continue to be patient, and when my number's called, make the best of the opportunity."

Anderson has been effective in limited work this year. His per-carry average (5.0) and his first-down rate (one first down gained every 2.75 carries) lead the team. Of the 82 running backs who have at least 10 carries, only one (Pittsburgh's LeGarrette Blount) moves the chains at a faster rate than Anderson.

"It's just working hard, all that stuff in the offseason, and knowing that playbook better," Anderson said. "I'm happy about that, and I showed that, and hopefully I can keep continuing to show what I can, and my role gets bigger as I go."

The same is true for Thompson and Hillman, who hope to prove their worthiness of carrying the ground game while Ball recovers. Together, they appear worthy of the big stage. But the lead role might change from game to game -- or even series to series.

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