ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Montee Ball's progress as a runner is obvious, especially in the last two games since his third-quarter fumble at New England on Nov. 24. But his increased playing time wouldn't have happened without his development as a pass protector.
And the Broncos' longest gain Sunday, a 38-yarder, would not have happened without Ball's alert block on Titans linebacker Zach Brown. It prevented Peyton Manning from being hit, allowed him time to wait for Demaryius Thomas to get open and moved the Broncos within five yards of the score that put them up for good.
On the play early in the third quarter. Ball is lined up four yards behind Manning, in a pistol formation. It's an ideal formation for a play-fake, as has been the case often in recent weeks as play-action has re-assumed its prominent role in the offense. But it also means that when Ball identifies a potential blitzer, he must simultaneously sell his role in the play-action, while also advancing in time to prevent the blitzer from disrupting Manning.
It seems simple. But it's not -- and certainly didn't seem that way nearly four months ago, when Ball missed a block on Seattle's Bobby Wagner in a preseason game Aug. 17. The work on the two plays offers tangible evidence of the rookie's growth.
"Back in the preseason, I was doing too much thinking and just playing slow," said Ball. "Now I'm just playing fast, and I'm a lot more of a technician now. It's all about technique, and mentally preparing yourself pre-snap, of getting up there and blocking a guy."
Simply impeding Brown might have been enough to get the job done Sunday. But Ball doesn't settle for that; he gets good position and stands his ground. This preserves a placid environment for Manning for 3.15 seconds -- longer than the sub-2.00 time he usually needs for his short routes.
Brown had momentum and a 33-pound advantage on Ball. But Ball had the advantage of being able to identify his role before the snap; he was mentally and physically ready for the confrontation.
"Oh, yeah. As soon as he was inching forward, I knew that was my guy, and aborted the fake," said Ball. "You've got to get up there and give Peyton time."
Ball appears more comfortable with every game, and with good reason: he's had the time to study football in a way he never could when he was balancing the sport with a full load of courses at the University of Wisconsin.
"That stuff's easy now, because when you're doing football 24/7, you're in the playbook 24/7. Now, it's second nature," Ball said. "I kind of at times anticipate what Peyton's going to do, what he's going to change, and it allows me to play faster."
It also allows him to be a truly viable relief option for the Broncos, who don't want to overwork starter Knowshon Moreno. Ball played 34.3 percent of the snaps at Kansas City in Week 13 and 44.2 percent against the Titans seven days later, his highest percentages of the year. Assuming Ball's improvement continues, expect similar percentages going forward.
THE EVOLUTION OF JACOB TAMME
If Wes Welker does not pass the concussion protocol and sits out Thursday, then Jacob Tamme is again expected to assume a prominent role. As he did last year when primary slot receiver Brandon Stokley was injured and missed a win over Tampa Bay, Tamme effectively filled in at the slot against the Titans.
The skill sets are different based on size; Welker relies on finding space underneath, while Tamme has flourished in recent weeks making grabs down the middle and in traffic, although his catch to set up Matt Prater's 64-yard field goal was to the outside, with six yards separating him from the nearest Tennessee defender.
In the last three games, Tamme has played 97 offensive snaps, after being limited to just 57 in the first 10 games. Thanks to injuries to Julius Thomas in Weeks 12 and 13 and to Welker last Sunday, both the level and manner of Tamme's workload increased. In the last three games, Tamme has been targeted once every 7.46 snaps, a figure that is closely in line with the season-long rates of Welker (once every 7.00 snaps), Demaryius Thomas (once every 7.84 snaps) and Eric Decker (once every 7.87 snaps).
Last year, he was targeted once every 6.21 plays, the highest rate of any Broncos receiver or tight end. A plethora of other options -- particularly Julius Thomas at tight end, who has been targeted once every 10.55 snaps he's played this year -- probably means Tamme's target rate will be more like his last three games than in 2012. But that's enough to be effective.
Tamme doesn't have Welker's quickness and explosiveness, but as Broncos Head Coach John Fox says, "he's going to do everything right." That was enough to keep the offense humming without Welker last Sunday, and should be going forward, as well.