AP Pro Football Writer
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- His return from offseason knee surgery still a few days away, Knowshon Moreno sauntered over to the sideline one hot August afternoon in training camp. In front of him were two young running backs having trouble picking up first downs and blitzes.
Asked who he thought would win the featured role in the Denver Broncos’ backfield, Moreno nodded and flashed a sneaky smile, then spun back to the trainer’s room.
Neither Ronnie Hillman nor Montee Ball would pry the football from his grasp, something nobody’s been able to do since Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas stripped him on Sept. 17, 2012, which resulted in Moreno’s two-month banishment to the scout team.
That penance left Moreno determined "if I ever do get that call again" to let neither the opportunity nor the football slip through his grasp again.
Willis McGahee’s injury gave Moreno that shot at redemption, and he’s lived up to that pledge ever since: in 479 touches since that fateful fumble against the Falcons, Moreno has gotten up with the football in his hands all 479 times.
"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," Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville said.
Moreno holds nothing back, not even his tears, which were captured by TV cameras during the National Anthem when the Broncos visited Kansas City last month.
Moreno said in those moments before kickoff, he reflects on all the good and the bad things that have happened in his life and in football and how much he appreciates the opportunity to play the game.
That’s when the tears flow.
"I’ve always been that way, high school and in college," Moreno said. "I guess it’s just my thing, you know? I play with my emotions on my sleeve."
Moreno has had his share of ups and downs in the NFL.
After replacing McGahee in 2012, he ran for 510 yards and three TDs in the final six games but blew out a knee early in Denver’s playoff game against Baltimore.
Without him, the Broncos were unable to run out the clock in the fourth quarter behind an undersized Hillman, which led to their loss to the Ravens in double-overtime.
That prompted the Broncos to draft Ball, the bruising 215-pound Badger who scored an NCAA-record 83 touchdowns at Wisconsin, and Hillman bulked up to 195 pounds in the offseason.
While Moreno continued his rehab from his knee injury, Ball and Hillman battled for the No. 1 job but both made too many mistakes to earn the trust of the coaches or Peyton Manning. And while all eyes were on them, Moreno -- the Broncos’ biggest back at 220 pounds -- quietly got healthy and brought fresh legs and experience to the equation.
This season he became the first running back in team history to top 1,000 yards rushing and 500 receiving, and he scored a career-high 13 TDs.
Moreno’s proficiency at catching the ball out of the backfield proved the best antidote for all the beatings Manning was taking at midseason, when opponents quit defending Denver’s record-setting offense with zones in favor of more man coverage, which freed up another pass-rusher to go after the quarterback.
Moreno is not only the Broncos’ best running back at picking up the blitz, but his sure hands keep linebackers busy in coverage or freeze them on play-action, which makes the Broncos, who scored an NFL-record 606 points, all the more dangerous.
"He has just been a rock for us back there," said Manning, who praised Moreno’s uncanny ability to navigate through traffic while also challenging tacklers head on.
Moreno has been a pleasant surprise to Manning, who knew what he had in targets Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas but spent the offseason wondering what he would have with him in the backfield.
"You never know coming off an injury, especially that running back position," Manning said. "He’s been a huge part of our offense this year."
Moreno’s biggest game came at New England in November, when he rushed for 244 yards on 37 carries in a game the Broncos lost 34-31 in overtime.
The rematch is Sunday when the Broncos (14-3) host the Patriots (13-4) in the AFC championship with the winner heading for the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, about an hour’s drive from Middletown, N.J., where Moreno grew up.
It’s one more opportunity he’s determined not to let slip away.
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