ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Montee Ball said there's no such thing as pass protection for running backs in high school. In college, he was merely introduced to it.
The Denver Broncos' rookie running back has quickly learned that, at the NFL level, taking on pass rushers is nearly as important as carrying the ball.
"My problem is I'm coming from Wisconsin, a power school, and I had 900 carries in four years. Whenever I was out on the field, I was getting the ball a majority of the time," Ball told FOX Sports this week. "But with this offense and No. 18..."
Ball didn't finish that sentence with words. Just an exhale. That said it all.
As the Broncos prepare for Thursday's NFL regular-season opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, it's clear one of the big keys to their offense will be the play of their running backs following the departure of Willis McGahee.
The wide receivers and linemen have had success at this level before. And "No. 18" - Peyton Manning - figures to be even better this season after one year of getting acclimated to his new surroundings and getting healthier. But in the backfield, it's a rookie (Ball), a second-year player trying to prove he's not fumble-prone (Ronnie Hillman) and a veteran trying to show he can run and stay healthy (Knowshon Moreno).
Sources have told FOX Sports all three will play in a running-back-by-committee approach. The team is high on Ball, whom they drafted in the second round in April, but protecting Manning is a priority, so expect to see plenty of Moreno and Hillman against Baltimore and beyond - until Ball proves he can protect a commodity even he knows is much more important than him.
"He's not RG3. He sets his feet and gets the pass off," Ball said when asked about protecting a stationary quarterback. "Great things happen downfield when you protect him. That's the thing. When I mess up, I understand getting yelled at because you don't want a big hit on him. He's extremely valuable. Big plays happen downfield when everybody does their job."
Manning isn't shy about doing the yelling, either.
"Oh yeah, for sure. We're all grown men," Ball said. "We have our own debriefing meetings where players fess up to making mistakes. That's how you grow, that's how you build chemistry and head toward success as a team. ... It's better to fess up than just sit in the back of the room with your head down."
Hillman's head isn't down after fumbling twice in the preseason.
"I don't really have fumbling problems; it was just two bad weeks," he said. "It's done."
Hillman fumbled twice last season. If he can protect the ball, he'll have more carries than the 84 he got in 2012. He's listed as the starter right now on the team's depth chart, with Ball behind him and Moreno as the third-stringer. But don't pay too much attention to that ranking order, as Moreno could be the starter and play the most against Baltimore, whose edge rushers (including former Bronco Elvis Dumervil) Denver will be blocking and chipping with their backs.
Expect all three backs to play, which could challenge a rookie used to getting a lot of carries.
"I guess in a way, yeah, getting in the flow, getting in rhythm, getting lathered up is a challenge, if they're doing the by-committee thing," Ball said. "But we talked about it and we like it. Whoever the hot hand is, whoever is doing the right things the entire game is going to be out there to play. It's a great decision by the coaches."