Broncos' running game still an issue
Denver • If the Broncos want Peyton Manning's right shoulder to remain attached to his surgically repaired neck, they had better come up with at least a token running game.
Otherwise, Manning will be throwing 40 passes a game. He can't do that. He's 37 years old. His arm will wear out.
Wait a minute. Never mind 40. How about 70 passes a game? In the Broncos' 27-26 preseason victory over the St. Louis Rams on Saturday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Manning threw 34 passes in the first half.
That's a pace of 68 pass attempts. Broncos executive John Elway wasn't dizzy while watching from his sky box. Those were Arena League flashbacks he was having.
Hurry up, Montee Ball, and figure out how to proceed against NFL run defenders. The Broncos need their rookie running back to develop into a starting, workload-type tailback. And they need him now.
A serious problem has surfaced with the Broncos' starting tailback. For the second consecutive preseason game, Ronnie Hillman lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
The Rams smelled vulnerability in Hillman as they stripped the ball away early in the second quarter. Rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree muscled the ball away from Hillman, who had just caught a short pass from Manning and was fighting to advance from deep in his territory. Ogletree popped the ball loose, then picked it up and rambled 13 yards for a touchdown.
It seemed the second Hillman had the ball, the Rams' defense smelled turnover opportunity.
Clearly, the Rams had watched the previous week's game tape when Hillman was about to cross the goal line in Seattle, only to fumble before crossing the plane. Seahawks defensive back Brandon Browner returned the fumble 106 yards for a touchdown.
The Broncos' Manning-led offense has scored 17 points in about one game worth of action in the preseason. Hillman's fumbles have cost them 14 points.
With the Broncos' running game a work in progress, the offense figures to rely heavily on Manning and his high-tempo play-calling style. Manning completed 25 of his attempted 34 passes in the first half for 234 yards. At that pace Manning didn't play in the second half the 37-year-old quarterback would have gone 50 of 68 for 468 yards.
It's not that Broncos coach John Fox is likely to give up on Hillman. At least not yet. Fumbles aside, the second-year pro ran well against the Rams, gaining 34 yards on six carries.
The Broncos drafted Ball, a former Wisconsin star, in the second round this year with the intent of making him their featured back with Hillman adding the occasional change-of-pace speed. But Ball is still feeling his way. He has 25 preseason carries for 80 yards, an average of 3.2 yards per carry.
He did look better in the second half Saturday, running for 10 yards on one carry and finishing off a Brock Osweiler-led drive with a strong, 1-yard touchdown plunge.
Meanwhile, veteran running back Knowshon Moreno, a former first-round draft pick, is working his way back from knee surgery. Moreno played well against the Rams, running twice for 12 yards and catching three passes for 42 yards.
It could be Moreno who moves up on the depth chart as the Broncos' starters begin preparing for the Sept. 5 season opener against the Baltimore Ravens in Denver.
This hasn't been a smooth preseason for the Broncos' first- teamers, who trailed 20-10 at halftime. The preseason itself, though, is not necessarily cause for concern.
The 1982 Washington Redskins went 0-4 in the preseason and won the Super Bowl. Manning's Indianapolis Colts were winless in the preseasons of 2005 and 2010 and reached the playoffs both years with a combined 24-8 record.
The 2008 Detroit Lions went 4-0 in the preseason, 0-16 in the regular season.
The preseason might help evaluate the performances of individuals, and the offensive, defensive and special-teams units. Otherwise, the preseason is only about how you play the game, not whether you win or lose.
What the preseason will do, though, is expose whether or not a running back can hang on to the ball.
R Peyton Manning goes 25 of 34 for 234 yards in the first half.
• Starting running back Ronnie Hillman has a fumble returned for a TD for the second straight game.
• Second-round draft pick Montee Ball is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry in the preseason.