After an encouraging rookie outing in 2013, running back Montee Ball was poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. The Denver Broncos were confident enough in their former second round pick to allow 1,000-yard rusher Knowshon Moreno to depart via free agency.
All the stars were aligned for Ball in 2014. He won the starting job in training camp and seemed to have momentum going into the regular season. Unfortunately for him, the Broncos offensive line was a mess. Left tackle Ryan Clady was back, but John Fox and company made the fateful decision to move right tackle Orlando Franklin to left guard, replacing him with Chris Clark.
The move had a domino effect, forcing guys to play out of position and it manifested most in a lack of chemistry, or synergy. For Ball, that translated in him often being met with first contact behind the line of scrimmage, which would make it hard for any running back to be effective.
Also complicating matters was offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s offense. Running out of the No Huddle shotgun, like they did so much in 2013, it eventually became something opposing defenses had figured out. It wasn’t until later in the year, after Ball injured his groin, that the Broncos became more diverse in their alignments and scheme.
By then, it was too late. Ball was on season-ending injured reserve and the rest is history. For the purposes of this film review, I decided to stick with his rookie campaign of 2013. And although there were some ups and downs, what I saw encouraged me.
All animated images via NFL Rewind.
Week 11 vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Play No. 1
Q1: 6:25: The Broncos in 11-personnel. Peyton Manning is in the shotgun, with Ball to his left and two receivers split right. The Chiefs are in a dime sub-package to match up against the Broncos potent aerial attack.
The Broncos run a draw. C Manuel Ramirez pulls into the B-gap and misses ILB Derrick Johnson coming downhill, instead engaging with S Eric Berry, who is playing in the box. Ramirez takes him out of the play but Johnson has a free one-on-one shot on the runner. This play is dead in the water, unless Ball can make a Pro Bowler miss, which he does.
Under Gary Kubiak, the Broncos aren’t likely to run as many shotgun dives and draws, but what this play shows us is that Ball can win one-on-one and make guys miss. In this play, he gets by Johnson in the hole, after he’s gotten a head of steam. He even shows some hops, leaping over a defender. The result is a six-yard gain.
Play No. 2
Q3: 2:28: The Broncos are in 11-personnel, as usual. Manning is in the shotgun, with Ball to his left. The Chiefs are in their nickel sub-package and they load up the box with eight men. TE Joel Dreessen is in-line on the right side. LG Zane Beadles pulls and seals off ILB Johnson, buying Ball space to turn the corner. The result is an eight-yard touchdown.
Again the Broncos are running out of the shotgun, but this play shows that Ball has the speed and short-area quickness to turn the corner and beat the defense to the pylon.
Week 13 at Kansas City Chiefs
Play No. 3
Q1: 1:25: The Broncos are in 11-personnel, this time with Manning under center. The Chiefs are in their nickel sub-package, with seven men in the box. This is a well-blocked play, making Ball’s job easy.
Ball is decisive in his read and gets to the second level. The hole opens up where it’s schemed to. Nothing fancy here. Just the Broncos working well as a unit and Ball getting it done.
Play No. 4
Q3: 5:01: It’s first down and Broncos are backed up on their own 5-yard line. Throughout this game, Ball has been given enough carries to get in a rhythm. The Broncos are in 11-personnel, with Manning under center and TE Virgil Green split out to the right in the slot.
The Chiefs are taking precautions to stop any deep passing plays, as they come out in their nickel sub-package, with a two-deep shell. Right before the snap, Manning motions Green from right to left, where he ends up just behind LT Chris Clark.
At the snap, C Manny Ramirez fires out to take on NG Dontari Poe, but whiffs on the block. Fortunately, Green traps inside and does the dirty work on the 346-pound Poe, but it leaves ILB Derrick Johnson a free shot on Ball. Notice Demaryius Thomas fire down on the free safety, which helps spring Ball. Thomas crushes his man.
Ball gets skinny and makes Johnson miss, breaking into the second level where CB Sean Smith has crashed down in run support. Ball lowers his shoulder, breaking Smith’s tackle and he’s off to the races. Ball runs out of steam and is eventually taken down after a 45-yard gain.
This play is the longest run of Ball’s career, but it wasn’t a fluke. He earned it, breaking two tackles. The play should have been limited to no gain because of Ramirez’s whiff, but Ball shows great lower body power and knifes through. It's also a nice example of keeping low pad level.
Week 17 at Oakland Raiders
Play No. 5
Q1: 1:11: The Broncos are in 11-personnel, and initially line up in the pistol, before Manning audibles and goes under center. The Raiders are in their nickel sub-package, with seven men in the box. They’re smelling run. But recognizing it and stopping it, are two different things.
Ball takes the rock off right guard and gets skinny through the hole, which allows him to break ILB Kevin Burnett’s tackle and get to the second level. From there, he keeps his legs churning, again showing great lower body power and breaks four tackles, before netting the Broncos 10 yards. In the end, it takes a gang tackle to bring him down.
When Ball was in college, the Wisconsin Badgers ran quite a bit of zone. And in 2013, Ball’s rookie year, the Broncos sprinkled their No Huddle offense with some zone blocking principles. He has a wealth of experience and production in the ZBS.
Now that he’s healthy, we could see Ball get back on the horse in 2015 (pardon the pun). Although he lacks some of the vision that C.J. Anderson possesses, Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison should be able to overcome that in practice and the film room.
Kubiak has already said that Anderson will be the starter heading into training camp. With how prolific he was in the second half of 2014, Anderson certainly deserves it. Ball, who claims he has every intention of winning the starting job back, will start the season No. 2 on the depth chart, but he’ll get plenty of opportunities to ply his wares in 2015.
The Broncos are very fortunate to have both Anderson and Ball, as they transition to the ZBS. That’s a credit to John Elway. The scheme suits both players. It requires vision, patience, discipline and cut-back ability to find running lanes and get downhill. Montee Ball has a lot to look forward to in this system.