Oct 23, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos running back Juwan Thompson (40) celebrates with running back Ronnie Hillman (23) after scoring a touchdown during the second half against the San Diego Chargers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 35-21. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
The Broncos are traveling to New England, so the football gods are calling for a cold, windy day.
Because, of course they would.
Peyton Manning and company came to New England around this time last season, only to find similar conditions and doubts from a majority of the media that he could win in such conditions. Sadly, they were right, as Manning and the Broncos’ offense sputtered after a 24-0 lead vaporized and quickly turned into a Patriots win in overtime, leaving Denver stunned.
With similar conditions this time around, and the fact that Manning and the Broncos’ aerial attack present them with the best chance at putting up a lot of points, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is expected to somewhat concede the run to the Broncos, leaving it up to Ronnie Hillman, Juwan Thompson, C.J. Anderson, and perhaps Kapri Bibbs to make plays.
First in line will be Hillman, who has been the Broncos’ lead back and a really productive one at that over the last month or so. Hillman’s performance in relief of Montee Ball starting against Arizona has been nothing short of a catalyst for the Denver offense, which has feasted on opponents in recent weeks.
Hillman has two games with over 100 yards rushing and sandwiched between those two games was a 74-yard, two-touchdown performance. In three starts, he’s also caught 10 passes, and the Patriots have given up over five yards per carry to running backs this season.
What everyone has been saying this week is probably true — Bill Belichick is going to invite Ronnie Hillman to beat him, and Hillman needs to take advantage.
The Broncos’ greatest disadvantage against the Patriots when playing on the road has ironically been their inability to avoid turning the ball over, and that’s precisely where Hillman has made his name infamous in Denver. While unsettling at first, Hillman’s insertion into the starting lineup and as the lead back has turned out to be a great jolt for Denver’s offense. He’s gaining confidence with each snap, and is breaking off big plays that the Broncos haven’t had from the running back position since Peyton Manning arrived.
While Hillman will certainly be the lead back and focal point of discussion, it’s also going to be a lot of added weight on the shoulders of undrafted running back Juwan Thompson to make some plays. Thompson, the free agent darling out of Duke, has produced no matter what the Broncos have asked him to do from the preseason until the present. He’s played special teams, caught passes, and gained tough yardage in the running game on his way to three touchdowns already in his rookie season.
This is a huge game for these players. Every game carries a lot of weight, but the Patriots actually match up pretty well with the Broncos in terms of individual players going up against each other in the passing game with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and the rest of the top ranked pass defense in the NFL roaming around back there.
These backs are going to be tasked with protecting Peyton Manning at times, but also making sure he doesn’t have to do everything in his own. They are going to need to have reliable hands out of the backfield in hostile situations with non-ideal conditions. They are going to need to be aggressive but not foolish or careless with the football. They need to take advantage of what is given, but don’t be hesitant to make plays. The Broncos can’t get into a mindset of trying not to lose, or they will most certainly do so.
The running backs need to be ready in this game, because at least in the early going, it’s going to be up to them to make defenders miss, break tackles, and make plays in order to get the offense into a good rhythm.