ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Knowshon Moreno is finally living up to his billing as the first running back selected in the 2009 NFL draft.
Pedestrian as a rookie. Spotty his second season. Injured in his third. Benched a year ago. Third-stringer this summer.
Now, he's a major part of Peyton Manning's prolific offense that's the best the NFL has ever seen through five weeks of a season, even if Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy thinks Moreno stinks.
Contrary to McCoy's assessment, there's no denying that Moreno is among the league's top rushers.
"Well, I think he's just matured," Broncos coach John Fox said. "Hopefully, we all get better the more we do it. In his case that has definitely been the case. He's done a terrific job."
Moreno helped seal unbeaten Denver's 51-48 escape from Dallas last week when he gained just enough real estate on third-and-inches but not enough to accidentally cross the goal line. That "first-down fall-down" allowed the Broncos to keep the ball out of red-hot Tony Romo's hands and trot out Matt Prater for the winning field goal as time expired.
When Skip Bayless tweeted during the game that "Peyton is doing what Peyton always does. But Knowshon is KILLING the Cowboys," McCoy retweeted it and added: "Knowshon (stinks)."
McCoy, who leads the league with 514 yards rushing for Philadelphia (2-3), might be mad that he was drafted 41 spots behind Moreno, or he could be smarting from losing to the Broncos by 32 points in Week 4. He wouldn't say.
Moreno, who said there's no history between the two, responded on Twitter that he was glad McCoy was watching the game and added the hashtags "5-0" and "LetHatersHate."
In the AFC, only Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster have more than Moreno's 331 yards rushing, and Denver's fifth-year back has four touchdown runs and a career-best 5.1 yards a carry.
This is all quite a change of fortune for Moreno, who was former coach Josh McDaniels' first draft choice, No. 12 overall in 2009, out of Georgia.
And it's quite a rebirth for a player who was basically an insurance policy this summer.
Moreno had gotten hurt in the playoffs in January and while he continued his recovery, Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball battled for the No. 1 running back job in training camp.
Both made enough youthful mistakes to open the door for Moreno, who has a tight grip on both the ball and the featured role now.
Moreno, who ran for 93 yards and a touchdown Sunday, traces his inspiration to his benching last season when a case of the fumbles led to eight consecutive game-day deactivations.
"Yeah, I feel like if someone does go through something like that, it is motivation," Moreno said. "You want to get back and do the right things to get back into that No. 1 role. Everyone wants No. 1. Coach says it all the time, if something were to happen, it's next guy up, so I always had that in the back of my mind that if I ever do get that call again to make the most of it."
His chance came when Willis McGahee blew out a knee in November. Moreno ran for 510 yards and three scores in the final six games, but got hurt early in Denver's playoff loss to Baltimore. And the Broncos were unable to run out the clock in the fourth quarter with an undersized Hillman.
Hillman bulked up in the offseason to 195 pounds and Denver drafted Ball, the 215-pound bruiser who set the NCAA record with 83 touchdowns at Wisconsin.
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, winning the featured role in the backfield by August's end.
"I feel like I've gotten better this year," Moreno said. "Not only as a running back and as a pass protector, but just in learning the scheme better, getting better with my eyes and reading defenses and learning my keys — and being patient."
Notes: CB Champ Bailey will make his '13 debut Sunday against Jacksonville after missing two months with a sprained left foot. ... MLB Paris Lenon is set make his first start for Denver with Wesley Woodyard (shoulder stinger, doubtful) missing practice all week.
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