ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos rank dead last in the NFL in rushing with a paltry 75.4 yards per game. So why are these guys smiling?
Because second-year tailback Knowshon Moreno finally seems to be hitting his stride after a series of setbacks from injuries.
Moreno's right hamstring popped on the first day of training camp and he didn't play in the preseason, then he tore his left hamstring at practice in September and missed three games.
Finally healthy after a bye, Moreno recorded his first career 100-yard rushing game in a rout of Kansas City two weeks ago and he caught a career-high seven passes out of the backfield in a loss at San Diego on Monday night.
Moreno is playing with a confidence that was only rarely on display in his first 1½ injury-filled NFL seasons.
"Being healthy has a lot to do with it," Moreno said. "At the same time, I don't think anybody in the league is ever healthy, especially when they are playing a whole season like this. My body feels pretty good right now."
The first running back selected in the 2009 draft, Moreno banged up a knee in his first preseason game and although he finished his rookie season with 947 yards rushing and seven scores, he never hit the holes like he is now.
He's averaged 4.7 yards a carry in his last two games and caught 10 passes for 112 yards.
Liberal use of two-tight end sets and a better offensive line have helped. Star left tackle Ryan Clady is playing better now that he's more than six months removed from blowing out his left knee in a pickup basketball game and right tackle Ryan Harris' return from a high ankle sprain has allowed rookie Zane Beadles to return to left guard.
But it's mostly Moreno's heath that's turned things around for him.
"He's been able to maintain a consistent workload in practice and get those full-speed reps," coach Josh McDaniels said. "He's running extremely hard during the week, which has allowed him to play the way that he has played the last few weeks.
"He is starting to really take on the role that we envisioned for him to take on in the spring."
Fullback Spencer Larsen, who's been banged up himself this year, said it's no wonder Moreno has a spring in his step, a swagger in his gait and a smile on his face.
"Health can do a lot of things for a guy, and when you're not healthy, your confidence isn't there," Larsen said. "It's just you don't know what to expect out of your body. You see him running with a lot more confidence because he's feeling better."
Running backs coach Eric Studesville said the Moreno everyone's seeing is the one the Broncos (3-7) envisioned all along: "We've always felt good about him and excited about his ability. It was just a matter of getting him going a little bit."
Moreno, who never had hamstring issues in high school or while starring at the University of Georgia, said he learned after tearing his right hamstring in camp that he had to be extra careful because he kept pushing himself to get back only to tweak the muscle, tear the scar tissue and set himself back.
So when he pulled his left hamstring, he knew better how to handle the rehab.
"Once that healed up, I felt pretty good," said Moreno. "I mean, I talk to people who have (torn) hammies back in high school where it still nags them, so it's just staying on top of it and making sure it doesn't come back."
Nobody's happier about Moreno's improved play than quarterback Kyle Orton.
"These last few weeks he's really practiced hard. He's played hard. I think he's playing faster, I think he's playing with a better speed and he's really going through the holes expecting to get through there and he's getting to the second level expecting to make a move," Orton said.
Harris said that Moreno is picking up the nuances of the NFL: "He's made great strides to read blocks. You are seeing a second-year player who is understanding the game."
"A lot of things have slowed down this year," Moreno concurred. "Last year, a lot of things were moving a lot faster."
Now, it's not his mind that's racing but his legs.
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