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Last season, the Broncos had the league’s top rushing attack. In 2012, their offense will be different with one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time at the helm.
But don’t discount the run game simply because Peyton Manning is in Denver.
The most obvious impact Manning will have is on the offense, specifically the passing game. His presence alone, though, changes the entire team dynamic. It affects the defense, the O-line, the coaches and it should benefit the running backs.
Willis McGahee returned to form in a big way for Denver last season, rushing for 1,199 yards, his best total since 2007. McGahee, who turns 31 in October, should get some help in the backfield from third-round pick Ronnie Hillman, and former first-rounder Knowshon Moreno. The trio of rushers figures to benefit from Manning’s abilities like several backs did in Indianapolis.
In nine of Manning’s 13 NFL seasons, he has had a back rush for over 1,000 yards. Four different running backs — Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai have hit the 1,000-yard mark with Manning handing them the ball.
In Manning’s last three seasons with less of a focus on having a "primary back," though, Addai had the high watermark with 828 yards in 2009. Addai and Donald Brown shared rushing duties in 2010, when Manning threw for a career-high 4,700 yards. But generally, extremely productive seasons by Manning haven’t had negative impacts on his backs. In 2004, Manning slung it for 4,557 yards, and James rushed for 1,548 yards.
McGahee won’t see 249 carries again, but that doesn’t mean he can’t take advantage of fewer eight-men-in-the-box defensive looks and be productive once again. He will also see more of the goal-line carries that went to Tim Tebow last season. Tebow had 13 red-zone carries last season and McGahee had 19, compared to 42 when he was a primary back in 2007 with Baltimore.
At San Diego State, Hillman broke Faulk’s Mountain West Conference record for most rushing yards by a freshman with 1,532, and added 1,711 last year. As the change-of-pace back with the quickness to burst through a hole, he should benefit with more room to run in the Broncos’ new offense.
Then there’s Moreno. Injuries followed him to the pros, as he has played in 20 games combined the past two seasons. In 2011, he rushed for 179 yards on 37 carries. Moreno's fourth season is crucial to his long-term standing with the Broncos. Behind Moreno on the depth chart are the capable Lance Ball and Mario Fannin, who impressed the Broncos before getting hurt last August. Another injury-plagued or poor season, or even a bad preseason, and the Broncos could part ways with Moreno.
Moreno will need to take advantage of his opportunity to carve out a niche as a receiving back, and that can earn back some respect from those who have already applied the “bust” label. He has 76 catches in his three seasons and Manning likes to target backs in the passing game. James had at least 44 catches in six seasons. Addai and Rhodes also put up solid receiving numbers.
The Broncos’ offensive line proved last year that it could create holes for the ground game, and that was with a quarterback in Tebow who didn’t spark much fear in opposing defenses, allowing units to cheat near the line. That group should be ready to pave the way again in 2012 — its concern will be learning Manning's audibles.
With several backs to hand the ball to, Manning should have a strong, complementary run game, and he may need it this season more than he did during his years in Indianapolis. Early reports indicate that Manning has been impressive, but there is far from a guarantee that he can put up Manning-esque numbers. What he will do is keep defenses honest and allow for his backs to scamper for yards.
McGahee may not hit that 1,000-yard mark again, and the overall touches for running backs will likely decrease compared to what they would have been if Tebow remained in Denver, but the Broncos’ rushing attack should not be ignored — McGahee, Hillman and even Moreno, if he stays healthy, could maintain the effectiveness we saw from that ground game last season. The talk surrounding the Broncos this offseason has been along the lines of the following: If this team could make it to the AFC final four with Tebow, it’s a Super Bowl contender with Manning. The signalcaller’s positive impact on the run game is just another reason that the Broncos’ offense has the potential to be one of the league’s top units.