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Montee Ball and the Broncos: To Ball or not to Ball?

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Montee Ball's injury has led to a merry-go-round of Denver Broncos running backs. If all were healthy, who should get the starting job? The answer might be more complicated than you think.

Montee Ball dives for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts.
Montee Ball dives for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts.
Doug Pensinger

The Broncos have had an unpredictable season, as far as running backs go. Montee Ball was named the starting back at the beginning of the season. He went as a first or second round pick in most fantasy drafts. To the ire of his fantasy owners, after an underwhelming performance in his first three games he suffered a groin injury in week 4 and has been out ever since.

Ronnie Hillman took over prime running back duties when Ball got injured, and did a pretty dang good job at it. He averaged 1.1 more yards per carry than Ball, and scored four touchdowns to Ball's one. He plain looks like a better runner; he's faster and more agile.

Last week Hillman sprained his ankle against the Raiders, and is set to be out another 2-3 weeks. Enter, C.J. Anderson. Anderson had a record-setting day when he took over main running back duties from Hillman. He rushed for 90 yards and received for 73 and a touchdown. Overall this season, Anderson has averaged 5.7 yards per carry, compared to Ball's 3.1 and Hillman's 4.2.

It seems like a no-brainer: Anderson should be the new starter in front of Hillman when he's healthy (and MHR's Ian Henson wrote as much). Many, including Ball himself, have taken it as a given that Hillman (and now Anderson) passed him in the depth chart. But not so fast... looking deeper into some of the stats might surprise you. Montee Ball is better than we think.

Despite the less-than-memorable performance by Montee Ball in the first 3 games, when the detailed circumstances are presented, he actually looks pretty impressive. The offensive line is largely responsible for running back success, and quite frankly, they weren't helping Montee out much in the first 3 games.

Ball averaged just 0.5 yards before contact in those 3 games, and led the NFL in broken tackles after week 3. The offensive line was letting him get hit an average of half a yard with the ball before a 300 pound defender ran into him. That means he was gaining 2.6 yards after contact, which is pretty impressive.

Looking deeper into some of the stats might surprise you. Montee Ball is better than we think.

The offensive line wasn't providing as much protection for Ball because of the way opposing defenses were playing against the Broncos in those games. Historically, running backs have shown great success when playing alongside Peyton Manning.

This can be attributed to what some like to call the Peyton F***ing Manning effect, or the PFM effect. PFM is so good at leading a successful passing offense that defenses tend to drop back more players to defend the pass. This leads to more openings for a running back to gain big yards.

For some unknown reason, the ColtsChiefs, and Seahawks all chose to gamble on Manning's passing ability and stuffed the line to stop the run against the Broncos. The brilliant work of some fantasy football redditors broke down defenders against the run for both Hillman and Ball, which is summarized in the table below. Ball was up against more defenders in general. In fact, on average, Ball was facing 7 or more defenders on 79% of his carries, whereas Hillman was only up against 7 or more on only 44% if his.

Defenders against
the carry
Percentage of carries
Ball Hillman
5 or less 3.70% 8.43%
6 16.67% 46.99%
7 53.70% 28.92%
8 or more 25.93% 15.65%

It seems that the PFM effect began to work its magic during the Jets game. Forcing Manning to run was part of the Jets' game plan, despite having one of the best run defenses in the league. This was the first game that Hillman started, and the game Ball's fantasy owners concerns started to grow.

Unfortunately, Hillman suffered an injury that will keep him sidelined to postpone this great debate for another couple of weeks. But we gained C.J Anderson. Obviously, C.J.'s game against the Raiders was more impressive than any other running performance this year. However, we must remind ourselves that this was against the Raiders, and a lot of his yardage was in garbage time. We don't have multiple games that C.J. had the bulk of carries in to compare his numbers to those of Ball and Hillman.

For the Rams game, C.J. will likely be the lead back, but with Ball returning, the carries will be split pretty much down the line. Ball is returning from injury, so the Broncos will ease him back into the system and give Anderson another audition against a defense ranked one spot above the Raiders' (at 24). Ultimately, Ball will be given the opportunity to seize back the top spot on the depth chart, and he might just succeed.

With the PFM effect, offensive options are limitless, and it could be anybody's game on any given Sunday. The best thing to take away is that the Broncos have 3-5 legitimate options for running back, each one with unique strengths and weaknesses. With Manning designing the plays, Ball, Anderson, and Hillman will each have a place in the best offense in the league, and Thompson and Bibbs might even get a shot too.