In the tale of the Denver Broncos running backs, it came down to this:
Willis McGahee locked in his starting role after last season’s 1,199 yard rushing season. Rookie Ronnie Hillman locked in his backup role when he was selected in the third round of the draft (67th overall), and rushed for 97 yards on 24 carries (4.04 yards per carry) in two preseason games. Fullback Chris Gronkowski had his spot locked in simply by being another solid blocker on the team.
That left Knowshon Moreno and Jeremiah Johnson on the fringe heading into Thursday’s final preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Moreno has been making strides since his surgery to repair a torn ACL last year. He rushed 18 times for 84 yards, and put his best performance out there on Thursday with 49 yards on 7 carries in one half of play.
Johnson has been the ultimate practice squad player. The former Oregon Duck was signed to the practice squad in December of 2010, and released on September 3, 2011. He was re-signed a day later and made it onto the active roster on September 16. He was released again on September 20, 2011 only to be re-signed two days later. Then when Moreno tore his ACL in November, Johnson made his way up the depth chart into the No. 3 back role behind McGahee and Lance Ball. In 8 games last season, Johnson had 14 carries for 77 yards (5.5 yards per carry), and 7 receptions for 62 yards.
It was Moreno vs. Johnson when the Broncos coaching staff met on Friday to trim their roster to 53 players.
“Knowshon had a great camp, and he came in and we obviously had to start him slow with that knee because of that knee surgery in the off season,” John Elway said. “Jeremiah played well too, but when you look at the full package, we were excited about where Knowshon was and how we ran the ball and continued to get better throughout camp. He’s carrying more weight, the knee has come back strong. He’s a first down guy as well as a third down guy that does a good job with third down. That’s one of those tough decisions, but Knowshon probably makes us a better football team.”
That doesn’t mean that Johnson won’t make the Broncos a better football team. He was signed to the practice squad Saturday along with six other men: DE Ben Garland, S Duke Ihenacho, TE Cornelius Ingram, WR Greg Orton, DT Sealver Siliga, and Wayne Tribue.
So Moreno will get one more shot, and you can bet this will be his last one. If he plays with the same intensity and focus as he had against the Cardinals, he should be in good shape, and so should the Broncos’ rushing game. If not, Johnson is just one step away from playing on game day.