Joe Mahoney/Associated Press
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press
ENGLEWOOD – The Denver Broncos aren’t all about passing with Peyton Manning. They’ve built a pretty good backfield, too.
The Broncos don’t want Manning to air it out 42 times a game as he did in his last season in 2010. He missed all of last season with a weakened throwing arm and has gone through four neck surgeries, his wrenching exit from Indianapolis and the free agency frenzy that ended with him wearing orange and blue.
Coach John Fox has a beefed-up backfield to help pick up the blitz and carry the load during Manning’s 2012 comeback tour.
New fullback Chris Gronkowski will lead the way for Willis McGahee, Lance Ball, rookie Ronnie Hillman and former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno.
McGahee, 30, is coming off his first 1,000-yard season since 2007. The versatile Ball played briefly with Manning in Indianapolis and hauled in his longest throw of this preseason, a 38-yarder. Hillman is a big-play threat in the mold of the New Orleans Saints’ Darren Sproles.
Moreno is a former first-round pick who overcame two big hurdles to beat out Jeremiah Johnson for a roster spot: a torn right ACL that cut short his 2011 season and the fact he doesn’t play on any of Denver’s special teams.
Three weeks ago, Moreno admittedly was apprehensive about charging through the middle of the line or making a cut on his surgically repaired right knee. But he burst through the hole at practice one morning, changed direction to deke out a linebacker, then popped up from the tackle and raced back to the huddle, eager to do it all again.
It was really the beginning of his own comeback trek.
Moreno averaged 4.7 yards a carry and 10 yards a reception in the preseason, which he capped with a seven-carry, 49-yard head-turning performance in the finale at Arizona last week that sealed his spot on the roster.
“Yeah, I think he’s probably gained some strength. I think he’s gained some size from a year ago. I think he’s carried that well,” Fox said. “Obviously, coming off an ACL is a hurdle for any player. I think our medical people, our coaches, everybody – and foremost him – did a good job of managing that. And I’m sure there’s a confidence level there now that maybe wasn’t there two months ago.”
Or even two weeks.
Moreno only was participating in individual drills when training camp started, then slowly worked his way into team drills. He said last month that while he was pain-free, the mental hurdles were bigger than the physical ones.
He’s quickly conquered both.
“I feel like I’m back to my old self – somewhat,” said Moreno, still not ready to declare himself 100 percent. “There’s still some little things I’ve got to get over, but as far as going out there and playing hard and being able to cut and to the old things that I used to do, I feel pretty good.”
Despite his prowess at catching passes out of the backfield, Moreno was on the bubble not that long ago.
“The first game I was pretty tentative. It was the first time being hit. Second game, the same way. I think around the third game and the fourth game was when I kind of got my rhythm back and I was like, ‘OK, I’m fine. Go out there and just play,’” Moreno said. “You’ve got to just run each play like it’s your last and don’t think about injuries.”
Hillman has overcome a hamstring injury that limited him during training camp. After missing the first two preseason games, he ran 24 times for 97 yards.
Hillman said Monday he’s been focused on blitz pickup as much as running the football.
“You’ve got to focus on it. You’ve got to protect 18 first,” he said of Manning.
Although Fox agrees that Moreno’s comeback and Hillman’s addition have bolstered his backfield, he’s not ready to tout the position as one of strength heading into the season.
“I always like to understate and overproduce because you just don’t know,” Fox said. “That’s why opening weekend is a big question mark everywhere because everybody has high expectations, high hopes, and the reality is 16 teams win and 16 teams lose.”
McGahee, 30, is coming off his second career Pro Bowl appearance after helping the Broncos lead the league in rushing last season by gaining 1,199 yards.
“Last year, they said I was slow. I don’t think I’m slow. I think I can beat half the guys on this team,” McGahee said. “I use that for fuel. You tell me I can’t do it; my goal is to prove you wrong.”
He’s been doing that for a decade.
McGahee injured his knee in his final game at the University of Miami and sat out his first season in the pros in Buffalo before having a solid career with the Bills, Ravens and Broncos. He said his goal was to play 10 years in the NFL, and he’ll reach that mark Sunday night against Pittsburgh.
“Now that I’m at 10, I want to go more,” McGahee said. “So, keep on going until the wheels fall off, baby.”