|Broncos’ Moreno has made most of second chance|
|Tuesday, January 14, 2014 9:20 PM|
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — His return from offseason knee surgery still a few days away, Knowshon Moreno sauntered over to the sideline one hot August afternoon in training camp. In front of him were two young running backs having trouble picking up first downs and blitzes.
Asked who he thought would win the featured role in the Denver Broncos’ backfield, Moreno nodded and flashed a sneaky smile, then spun back to the trainer’s room.
Neither Ronnie Hillman nor Montee Ball would pry the football from his grasp, something nobody’s been able to do since Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas stripped him on Sept. 17, 2012, which resulted in Moreno’s 2-month banishment to the scout team.
That penance left Moreno determined “if I ever do get that call again” to let neither the opportunity nor the football slip through his grasp again.
Willis McGahee’s injury gave Moreno that shot at redemption and he’s lived up to that pledge ever since: in 479 touches since that fateful fumble against the Falcons, Moreno has gotten up with the football in his hands all 479 times.
“He plays this game in a way that I absolutely love because it’s every bit of who he is and he gives you every bit of what he has,” Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville said. “He’s so amped up and hyped up before the game because he’s so excited for it and then he plays with that intensity and that energy and that effort.”
Moreno holds nothing back, not even his tears, which were captured by TV cameras during the National Anthem when the Broncos visited Kansas City last month.
Moreno said in those moments before kickoff, he reflects on all the good and the bad things that have happened in his life and in football and how much he appreciates the opportunity to play the game.
That’s when the tears flow.
“I’ve always been that way, high school and in college,” Moreno added. “I guess it’s just my thing, you know? I play with my emotions on my sleeve.”
Moreno has had his share of ups and downs in the NFL.
After replacing McGahee in 2012, he ran for 510 yards and three TDs in the final six games but blew out a knee early in Denver’s playoff game against Baltimore.
Without him, the Broncos were unable to run out the clock in the fourth quarter behind an undersized Hillman, which led to their loss to the Ravens in double-overtime.
That prompted the Broncos to draft Ball, the bruising 215-pound Badger who scored an NCAA-record 83 touchdowns at Wisconsin, and Hillman bulked up to 195 pounds in the offseason.
While Moreno continued his rehab from his knee injury, Ball and Hillman battled for the No. 1 job but both made too many mistakes to earn the trust of the coaches or Peyton Manning. And while all eyes were on them, Moreno — the Broncos’ biggest back at 220 pounds — quietly got healthy and brought fresh legs and experience to the equation.
This season he became the first running back in team history to top 1,000 yards rushing and 500 receiving and he scored a career-high 13 TDs.
Moreno’s proficiency at catching the ball out of the backfield proved the best antidote for all the beatings Manning was taking at midseason, when opponents quit defending Denver’s record-setting offense with zones in favor of more man coverage, which freed up another pass-rusher to go after the quarterback.
Moreno is not only the Broncos’ best running back at picking up the blitz but his sure hands keep linebackers busy in coverage or freeze them on play-action, which makes the Broncos, who scored an NFL-record 606 points, all the more dangerous.
“He has just been a rock for us back there,” said Manning, who praised Moreno’s uncanny ability to navigate through traffic while also challenging tacklers head on.
Moreno has been a pleasant surprise to Manning, who knew what he had in targets Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas but spent the offseason wondering what he would have with him in the backfield.
“You never know coming off an injury, especially that running back position,” Manning added. “He’s been a huge part of our offense this year.”
Moreno’s biggest game came at New England in November, when he rushed for 244 yards on 37 carries in a game the Broncos lost 34-31 in overtime.
The rematch is Sunday when the Broncos (14-3) host the Patriots (13-4) in the AFC championship with the winner heading for the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, about an hour’s drive from Middletown, N.J., where Moreno grew up.
It’s one more opportunity he’s determined not to let slip away.
Patriots secondary set for rematch with Manning
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Denver Broncos tried to beat the New England Patriots less than two months ago by running the ball. It didn’t work.
With a Super Bowl berth at stake in Sunday’s rematch, Peyton Manning figures to have a better day.
“We’ll have to be on top of our game,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory said.
Their pass defense has been pretty close to that lately.
The Patriots intercepted Andrew Luck four times Saturday night in their 43-22 divisional-round win over the Indianapolis Colts. And in their next to last regular-season game, they picked off Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco three times in a 41-7 rout at Baltimore.
They’re traveling again this week, to Denver for the AFC championship game, with a deep, experienced secondary. And though Flacco and Luck are impressive quarterbacks, Manning appears to be on a different level — regardless of how he did last time out vs. New England.
“What you are always trying to strive for is consistency,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said Tuesday, “certainly in a position like the defensive backs where there is a lot of communication.”
In their first meeting with the Broncos, the Patriots won 34-31 in overtime after trailing 24-0 at halftime. Manning had season lows of 19 completions, 150 yards passing, a 52.8 completion percentage and a 70.2 passer rating. With the wind whipping, and the running game rolling behind Knowshon Moreno’s 224 yards, Manning threw 36 passes, five below his average. His longest completion gained 17 yards, although tight end Julius Thomas sat out with a knee injury.
New England struggled against the long ball early last season. That changed after it acquired cornerback Aqib Talib in a trade with Tampa Bay after the eighth game. He sat out the next game to complete a 4-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, claiming it was Adderall.
In his first game with the Patriots, he returned an interception for a touchdown against Luck.
Talib’s arrival solidified the move of Devin McCourty from cornerback to safety, made after the sixth game. With Gregory at safety and Alfonzo Dennard at cornerback, the Patriots had the starting secondary they continued using this season.
“It’s been a huge plus for us that we’ve been able to essentially keep those same players back there,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Then (there’s) some degree of flexibility because both Steve Gregory and Devin have both played corner.”
Injuries on defense sidelined tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo for most of the season and linebacker Brandon Spikes for the postseason. But in the secondary, the four starters have missed a total of just nine games.
When they’ve been out, veteran Kyle Arrington and two rookies, cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon, have played more.
Ryan’s interception against Manning early in the fourth quarter Nov. 24 led to the touchdown that put the Patriots ahead for the first time, 28-24.
“I practice against a great quarterback every day,” Ryan said before his playoff debut against Luck. “So I think practicing against Tom (Brady) makes everything a little bit easier.”
Ryan led the Patriots with five interceptions. Talib had four. Dennard had just one then picked off two in the playoff win over the Colts. He did give up a 38-yard touchdown reception to LaVon Brazill on a perfectly thrown pass on which he barely missed the deflection.
“He’s got attitude,” Gregory said. “He believes in his talent. We believe in him. We’re always out there supporting each other, letting the guys know that, ‘Hey, we got this, you can do this.’ Those corners, they have to play with confidence. You see it in Talib, you see it in ‘Zo, Logan, Kyle. You need that in order to cover guys in the NFL.”
Especially when those guys are Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker. They combined for 252 catches for 3,496 yards and 35 touchdowns for Denver.
But the Patriots still have Talib, Dennard, Gregory and McCourty trying to contain them.
“They have a good comfort level out on the football field,” Patricia added. “So as much as you can have the continuity within a group — especially in the back end — I think it is always what is going to help you in the long run.”
NOTES: Belichick had no update on punter Ryan Allen, who left last Saturday’s game after hurting his shoulder when he was hit after recovering a bad snap. “We’ll put out our injury report (Wednesday) after practice like we usually do,” Belichick said. He added the Patriots could sign a punter as late as Friday or let placekicker Stephen Gostkowski fill in as he did when Allen was injured. … Offensive coordinator and former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, asked about having withdrawn his name for consideration for Cleveland’s head coaching job, replied, “I’m really happy here. I’ve said that numerous times.”