ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – During his two-month banishment for fumbling, Knowshon Moreno promised himself if he ever got another shot, he'd let neither the opportunity nor the football slip through his fingers again.
He's had 389 touches since that fateful fumble in Atlanta in Week 2 last year and he's gotten up with the football in his hands all 389 times.
"I just think it's that important to him, this team, this game," Denver running backs coach Eric Studesville said. "He plays this game in a way that I absolutely love because it's every bit of who he is, and he gives you every bit of what he has."
It's a lesson his three young backups are learning themselves as they try to put fumbling issues aside so they can take the load off Moreno and help the Broncos (9-2) balance out their high-powered offense.
Moreno's ball security was never more pronounced than last Sunday night at frigid New England, where the football looked like a frozen turkey in everyone's hands but his.
Moreno set career highs with 37 carries for 224 yards before leaving Gillette Stadium in a walking boot after bruising his right ankle on his longest run, an 18-yarder in overtime.
"It's a shame we lost that game because that was one of the better performances I've seen by a running back," offensive coordinator Adam Gase said.
Moreno, who ditched the boot and crutches by midweek, looked sharp and smooth at practice late in the week. He said he's ready to start in Sunday's showdown at Kansas City between 9-2 teams vying for first place in the AFC West.
"My body feels really good," Moreno said Friday, showing no lingering effects of his heavy workload aside from the bright red scrapes on his elbows.
Finally living up to his status as a first-round pick out of Georgia in 2009, Moreno is a leading contender for Comeback Player of the Year. He leads the AFC with a career-high nine TD runs and his 824 yards rushing are second in the conference to Jamaal Charles' 918.
Moreno emerged from coach John Fox's doghouse this time a year ago only because of Willis McGahee's season-ending knee injury. He rushed for 510 yards and three TDs down the stretch, then caught a touchdown pass early in the playoff game against Baltimore before an injury to his right knee proved costly.
Behind undersized rookie Ronnie Hillman, the Broncos were unable to run out the clock in the fourth quarter and lost to the Ravens in double overtime.
They went out and drafted Montee Ball, the bruising Badger who set the NCAA record with 83 touchdowns at Wisconsin, and Hillman bulked up to 195 pounds. The two of them battled in training camp but made enough mistakes for Moreno, who is better at picking up the blitz and holding onto the football, to win the job.
His coaches take no credit for his turnaround.
"I wish I could say it was something that we did or drills. It wasn't that," Studesville said. "This has been a credit to him as a young man to have gone through such adversity, people saying things about you, whether you're not playing, inactive. And yet, he stayed focused. He came to work every day, never complained, was never an issue, was never negative and had the patience and the mental toughness to stay the course and eliminate all the outside noise."
Moreno said not a day goes by that he doesn't ponder ball security, and, therefore, job security.
"In the NFL, holding onto the ball is your livelihood," he said. "All you can do is block it all out and on that one play just make sure you get up with the ball in your hands."
Once a cautionary tale, Moreno is now a model running back, one all the others on Denver's roster are trying to emulate.
Hillman was benched a month ago for fumbling. Ball, who fumbled just twice in 983 touches in college, has three fumbles in 83 touches in the pros, including one that sparked New England's comeback, after which he didn't see another snap from scrimmage.
Instead, it was undrafted rookie C.J. Anderson giving Moreno breathers, but he, too, had a critical fumble on an exchange in overtime. He recovered it himself, but that miscue helped kill a drive 5 yards short of Matt Prater's range for a winning field goal attempt.
Asked what they've learned from Moreno, all three backups answered "overcoming adversity" — something they're all trying to do themselves now.
"We have no other options," Gase said. "I mean, nobody is coming through that door. At some point one of these three guys, these young guys, they have to step up. We have to be able to not have 'Know' go 37 carries a game. So one of these guys has to step up and hold on to the ball."
Just like Moreno.
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