Peyton Manning's brilliant first season in Denver gave the Broncos the NFL's fourth-rated offense and the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2012.
Improving a middle-of-the-pack running game (16th in the NFL), however, was an obvious focus of the offseason as the Broncos jettisoned former starter Willis McGahee and drafted Wisconsin's Montee Ball with the 58th pick of the draft.
After leaving the Badgers with an NCAA-best 77 rushing touchdowns over his career, Ball joined Denver with plenty of fanfare. Despite his collegiate success, however, Ball has been running behind second-year pro Ronnie Hillman throughout training camp. Though he averaged almost twice as much per rushing attempt as Hillman in the first half of Denver's preseason tilt against the Seattle Seahawks, the rookie's struggles in pass protection could leave the Broncos once again searching for more consistency from the position in 2013.
As he did in Denver's preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers, Ball began the game on the sideline with Hillman starting.
Ball's first carry came with 3:07 remaining in the first quarter. He squirted through a hole off left guard for a gain of 5 yards. A few plays later, he gained another 4.
His first opportunity to show the Denver coaching staff that he could be trusted with third down pass-blocking duties didn't go nearly as well, however. With the Seahawks threatening blitz with multiple defenders, Ball aggressively stepped up to take on middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. The Seahawks' second-year pro blew through Ball with an explosive pop, driving the rookie backward and sliding off to lay a big hit on Manning just as he got off a strike to tight end Julius Thomas for a gain of 31 yards.
Manning took a few extra seconds to pick himself up off the turf following Wagner's big hit. He looked no worse for wear on his next pass, hitting Wes Welker for an 11-yard touchdown, but the Broncos pulled Ball after the missed block and Hillman was back on the field to start the next series.
Ball briefly returned to the action on the Broncos' first drive of the second quarter. He appeared confused when Manning called an audible and the quarterback elected to call a timeout with the play clock winding down. Hillman once again replaced him when the Broncos came back on the field. On one of his few other pass blocking opportunities of the first half, Ball's attempted cut block of 6-2, 303-pound defensive tackle Martin Parker was largely a whiff, forcing an errant throw.
Ball's chances at more playing time may have actually been improved by his time on the bench. Hillman fumbled twice on the drive, including at the 1-yard line as the Broncos attempted to pound the ball into the end zone with the 5-10, 195-pound back. Hillman's second fumble was recovered by Seattle cornerback Brandon Browner and returned 106 yards for a Seahawks' score.
At 5-10, 215-pounds, Ball has the power to eventually serve as the bell-cow back in Denver. He averaged 4.67 yards on his six attempts of the first half. Hillman, on the other hand, averaged just 2.6 yards on 13 attempts. Veteran Lance Ball (no relation) took over in the second half.
In his limited action, the rookie flashed the same combination of vision and burst out of his cuts that led to his dominance at the collegiate level. As long as the Broncos are going to be trotting out Manning at quarterback, however, the running back will need to improve significantly in the passing game if he is to play the significant role most anticipated following his second-round selection.