ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –On Monday, the Broncos learned that they will be without their starting running back for an extended period of time due to a torn knee ligament.
Willis McGahee's backfield teammates acknowledged that it's now on them to carry the load.
"You hate to see a teammate go down with an injury," running back Knowshon Moreno said. "That really hurts, but at the same time, we have a lot of capable guys in the backfield that can get the job done for this team also."
Head Coach John Fox has repeated throughout the year that when one player goes down, the team has to adopt a next-man-up mentality. The situation at running back is just the latest example of the importance of that mantra.
"I think you have to be prepared," running back Lance Ball said. "Guys go down, just like yesterday. You have to be ready to go in there and play. I think everybody has kind of the same mindset."
In McGahee's absence, Denver has several players to turn to, including Moreno, Ball and rookie Ronnie Hillman, who has 49 carries on the season, the second-most behind McGahee. Which of those players steps into McGahee's role as the featured back Sunday against Kansas City will depend on what happens on the practice field.
"It's just whoever the coaches decide," Hillman said. "It might be Knowshon, it might be Lance, it might be (practice squad running back) Jeremiah (Johnson). We will all see how it goes."
Regardless of how the depth chart at running back is reconfigured, Hillman's mindset will remain the same.
"Like I said, I kind of approach it as playing a role," Hillman said. "If my number is called, then it's called and I'll go in and do my job. There's no kind of stress factor. Like I said, the rest of the running backs are going to come in and we're going to have to pick up the slack and do a good job this week."
Hillman has shown steady improvement throughout the season after he was inactive for the first two games of the year. The rookie from San Diego State recorded his first career touchdown in Week 10 against Carolina after picking up a career-high of 86 yards in the Broncos' Week 8 win over the Saints.
"He's improved quite a bit," Fox said. "We had pretty good per-carry numbers yesterday and ones that we can live with. He was part of that. For any new player to your system, in particular a rookie, he missed some time so you fall behind a little bit but I think he's caught up by now."
Ball and Hillman combined to run the ball 18 times for 78 yards in relief of McGahee on Sunday against the Chargers. Hillman said he's ready to fill a more prominent role if necessary.
"I welcome it," Hillman said of potentially getting more touches. "But I'm not the coach, so I really don't know exactly what's going to happen this week. I could get an increased role, Lance could get an increased role, Knowshon, Jeremiah, any of the running backs. So we're all just playing it by ear right now."
In addition to Hillman and Ball, Denver might also look to Moreno, who has started 24 games and scored 19 touchdowns since being drafted in 2009. Moreno, who sustained an ACL injury a year ago, has been inactive since Week 3, but has earned Fox's confidence with strong performances in practice as of late.
"He practices every day," Fox said. "He's not been injured. He had some early issues with his knee, which would be understandable coming off of an ACL. Our medical staff – (Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos) "Greek" does a great job -- they've kind of rehabbed that back some and let it rest. He's looked, actually over the last couple of weeks, very good."
Another option for the Broncos is Johnson, who has spent the season on the practice squad after picking up 77 yards on 14 carries in limited action a year ago.
While it remains unclear which back will get the majority of touches moving forward, it will be a collective effort, regardless of who's carrying the football.
"We have a great group of guys in that room," Moreno said. "We lift each other up, and we feed off each other, and that's the great thing about us. We like to see all of us making plays, and when we do, we're all cheering. We have a great group, definitely, at the running back position."