Englewood, Colo. • Peyton Manning’s longest pass play of the preseason didn’t go to one of his towering tight ends or his mammoth wide receivers.
Running back Lance Ball, who packs 215 pounds into his 5-foot-9 frame, lined up wide to the right across from a San Francisco 49ers linebacker and hauled in a 38-yard pass that set up Manning’s first TD throw in orange and blue.
“That was a nice route by him,” Manning said. “He has shown that ability to run routes like a receiver out of the backfield. Hopefully that’s another weapon we can take advantage of if he gets a linebacker or a safety out on him.”
Ball played briefly in Indianapolis in 2008, so his history with Manning goes back a little ways, and he knows that if he can get open, the ball will be headed his way.
“I think as a running back that gives us another option out there,” said Ball, who bruised his ribs on the big catch. “We’re just not dummies out there when we split out wide.”
It was the latest example of the hybrid offense the Broncos (No. 10 in the AP Pro32) have installed since signing the four-time MVP in March, which spelled the end of the throwback read-option experiment under Tim Tebow.
Manning told his new coaches he wasn’t interested in lugging the Colts’ playbook from Indianapolis, offering instead to fit into the Broncos’ system just as much as they’d tailor the offense around him.
By meeting offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and quarterbacks coach Adam Gase halfway, Manning has more options at his disposal for his 2012 comeback tour than he did in his 14 seasons in Indy, which came to an end after he missed all of last season with a nerve injury that weakened his throwing arm.
“Everybody thinks that because Peyton is here we’re changing everything,” McCoy said. “But we have a system in place and that’s the first thing Peyton said when he came here was, ‘Hey listen, I want to learn your system.’ So, there’s plenty of other players here who we had to take into consideration as we’re building this offense.”
The Broncos are a blend of the power formations they used in leading the league in rushing last year with Tebow and some of the spread formations that Manning ran in Indianapolis.
A new twist for the 36-year-old quarterback is the presence of fullback Chris Gronkowski, which means Manning will run at times a two-back offense for the first time in his career. He’ll also have rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, who’s in the mold of Darren Sproles, to provide a change-of-pace to Willis McGahee and Ball.
In Manning’s final tuneup for the regular season Sunday, the Broncos lined up in four- and five-receiver sets, two-tight end sets, ran the no-huddle at altitude, ran the conventional huddle, lined up Gronkowski and other times went with a one-back set or an empty backfield.
“That’s what this preseason is for. You want to win the game but you want to get a look at different players,” Manning said. “Gronkowski at fullback, look at Lance Ball out at wide receiver out of the backfield. I’m not sure if they accomplished everything the coaches wanted to accomplish, but we knew we were going to mix our personnel groupings today.
“No matter what grouping we were in, we showed we could move the ball.”
It was good for defensive coordinators to catch a glimpse of the Broncos’ blended offense, although Denver didn’t reveal much besides its newfound versatility.
Opponents won’t have much film to analyze at first. They can pretty much scrap the final 13 games the Broncos played last year with Tebow under center, and it won’t do much good to review the first five games of last season, either, when Kyle Orton was the quarterback.
If they look at Manning’s 2010 season in Indy, it will bear only some resemblance to this year’s version in Denver.
So, for a while, Manning will have the element of surprise on his side as he embarks on his comeback from the nerve issue that weakened his right triceps and required four neck operations, including a fusion in September.
Manning staked Denver to a 17-0 lead in less than a quarter of work Sunday, then watched his backups fritter away the lead in a 29-24 loss to the Niners (No. 4, AP Pro32).
Coach John Fox was so pleased with Manning’s play, he took him out after less than a quarter of work.
“I’ve seen steady improvement since he got here and that’s a tribute to him, his work ethic, his offensive coaches, his teammates,” Fox said. “For being a first-year guy, to come in and learn an offense and execute an offense with the precision he has is pretty good.”
Manning threw his first two TD passes as a Bronco and led Denver to scores on all three of his drives, diagnosing the defense at the line of scrimmage just as if he’s always done.
“I think he knew what we were going to do before the snap even happened,” 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks said.