In 2008, the New York Giants had a stable of running backs, three to be exact, that they relied on. Each of the three had a specific skill that the team could rely on. This group was made up of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw. Together, they were know as “Earth, Wind, and Fire.”
Jacobs, a downhill, power runner was the Earth. Ward, who could also run north-to-south using his vision, was the Wind. Finally, Bradshaw, who had the quicks to break the ankles of any defender, was the Fire.
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In that 2008 season, Jacobs and Ward each topped 1,000 yards, contributing to the 2,469 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns this stable was able to attain.
Why do I bring this up?
With Montee Ball out three-to-four weeks with a groin injury, the Broncos will look to three players to pick up the slack: Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson, and Juwan Thompson.
When I look at these three players and see what they can do, it reminds me a lot of those 2008 Giants running backs.
Ronnie Hillman is Bradshaw’s Fire, with his quickness and ability to do dangerous things as receiver out of the backfield. Anderson is Ward’s Wind, as I’ve raved before about C.J.’s supreme ball carrier vision and ability to find tiny holes. Thompson (aka The Anvil) is Jacobs’s Earth, his ability to demolish any one-on-one tackle attempt.
Of course, the amount of times these guys carry the ball won’t be identical to the 2008 Giants, both as a group and individually. The Giants ran the ball 468 times (almost 30 times per game) that year with EWF. With Peyton Manning at the helm, I don’t expect him to hand the ball off that much. Also, instead of a power runner like Jacobs leading the pack, it seems as though Hillman will get the first shot at significant carries in this backfield.
Oct 5, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman (23) runs the ball during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 41-20. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
And what a roller-coaster season it’s already been for Hillman; going from a healthy scratch in Week 1, to talking over the backup job last week against the Arizona Cardinals.
Hillman certainly has done a great job in my eyes of improving year-to-year. He just looks like a different back this year. He still shows the same pop we’re used to, but he’s running smart and getting the most out of every play. He’s also improved his pass protection, which is the number one key to being a running back on a team with Peyton Manning – ball protection being a close second. Hillman has shown flaws in both areas in the past, but this year he’s proven he’s improved his overall game. I’d go so far as to say if Hillman doesn’t have a major screw-up and continues to look like the back we saw against Arizona, he might take over the starting position outright, even when Montee Ball returns.
Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase really pumped up Hillman this week as well.
Next in line to get carries is (probably) C.J. Anderson. The only reason I’m not convinced he’s the unquestionable number two back is he was a healthy scratch against Arizona on Sunday. Though John Fox said that was due to the team wanting an extra defensive back and Juwan Thompson being able to play special teams, it still gives me a little pause.
Regardless, C.J. Anderson has proved to me throughout these couple years that he belongs on the team. His stats won’t pop out to anybody, but his play pops out to me. Behind this porous run-blocking offensive line, he’s been able to rush 11 times for 55 yards at five yards a rush. Should something happen to Hillman – be it a fumble, missed blitz pickup, or injury – Anderson is someone I think would show a lot of people how valuable of a runner he is. Even with Hillman ahead of him, he should see some carries and I expect him to make the most of those carries. That’s just the kind of runner he is.
Oct 5, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Juwan Thompson (40) scores a touchdown during the second half against the Arizona Cardinals at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 41-20. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Juwan Thompson is the wild card here. Some fans and media have already proclaimed him as the best running back on the team based on what he did in preseason. I won’t go that far, but he did show some mind-boggling displays of power before the regular season started. Even given his limited playing time in these first four games, should an occasion arise again where Anderson is inactive, Thompson is a guy that I trust giving the ball too. He hasn’t been in enough to prove himself as a pass protector, but everyone knows where he’ll make his dough. He can wear a defense down with his running style and might even be able to run inside the tackles with this offensive line.
Though the upcoming opponent New York Jets have a solid run defense, I expect the new Earth, Wind, and Fire to get plenty of reps against them. Should the Broncos beat them in a landslide like people expect them to, Hillman, Anderson, and Thompson should get the opportunity to show us what they’re made of in the second half; almost like an open competition. But again, the Broncos will have to beat up the Jets pretty good for this to happen.
One final thing to watch in these next few weeks with Montee Ball out is what the Broncos do with practice squad running back Kapri Bibbs. I don’t foresee any situation in which the Broncos dress four running backs, but should Juwan Thompson’s knee injury – which limited him in practice this week – become a problem, Bibbs might get the call.
The Broncos worked out running backs like Mikel LeShoure and LaRod Stephens-Howling but both left without contracts. Again, with Peyton Manning quarterbacking this team, I bet part of that decision was the confidence level they have in Bibbs being in this system since the offseason.
I don’t know about all of you, but I’m excited about the new development with the running backs. Of course it’s awful that Montee Ball got hurt; he’s gotten the raw end of the deal this year as injuries are concerned. But there is also the potential we see someone finally make a difference in this struggling running game. Let’s see what the new Earth, Wind, and Fire can do.