ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Peyton Manning’s four big targets have combined for 30 touchdown catches so far, yet the most important receiver the Denver Broncos have right now isn’t Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker or Julius Thomas.
It’s running back Knowshon Moreno.
Over the last month, none of Denver’s “Fearsome Foursome” of pass-catchers has collected more than Moreno’s two dozen receptions.
Moreno’s proficiency at catching the ball out of the backfield just might prove the best antidote for all those beatings Manning’s been taking lately, too.
Opponents have quit defending Denver’s high-powered offense with zones in favor of more man coverage, which frees up another pass-rusher to go after Manning, who’s been sacked and stripped in each of his last three games.
A gimpy Manning skipped the Broncos’ lone padded practice this week to get treatment on his sore right ankle in advance of Sunday night’s showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs (9-0), who lead the league with three dozen sacks.
Moreno is not only the Broncos’ best running back at picking up the blitz, but his sure hands keeps linebackers busy in coverage or freezes them on play-action, which makes the high-flying Broncos (8-1) all the more dangerous.
“We’ve been talking about Knowshon in the running game, but in the passing game he’s been critical,” Manning said. “He’s catching those short passes and he’s getting north. He’s making that first guy miss sometimes and a lot of times just taking it to first-and-10 and keeping it at a first-and-10.”
What makes Moreno “extremely important” in Manning’s view, is his ability to gain yards after the catch.
“I think he’s got a good feel for where the defenders are around him, kind of before he catches it, which I think is a special gift — not just catching it and turning right into a defender — knowing where to turn away,” Manning said. “I think he’s got a special feel on those option routes to find the best hole or zone in the coverage.”
Moreno’s importance was evident from the get-go Sunday at San Diego, when he had two runs and two receptions in the Broncos’ first five snaps, then finished with a team-best eight catches — on eight targets — to go with 15 carries in Denver’s 28-20 win.
“He’s been critical in the passing game, I will say that,” Manning said.
Moreno, who leads the AFC with eight TD runs to go with one TD catch, has achieved big-wig status in Manning’s eyes just a year after he was benched by coach John Fox for having too many fumbles.
This year, he hasn’t had a turnover in 160 touches and he’s averaging 95.2 yards from scrimmage.
“He’s done a nice job for us,” interim coach Jack Del Rio said. “He brings a lot of energy to the game. He’s been a dependable runner and blocker, and also receiving the ball out of the backfield. ... We count on him to do his part, whether it’s blocking or getting out and peeling away some coverage, or actually catching the ball and making somebody miss.”
Moreno said that while he ran the scout team for two months last season, he grew more determined than ever “if I ever do get that call again” to live up to his first-round draft status as the 12th player taken in 2009.
Willis McGahee’s knee injury opened that door after eight straight game-day deactivations, and Moreno ran for 510 yards and three touchdowns in the final six games of 2012.
But he got hurt early in Denver’s playoff loss to Baltimore and the Broncos were unable to run out the clock in the fourth quarter with an undersized Ronnie Hillman in the backfield.
So, the Broncos drafted Montee Ball, a 215-pound bruiser who set the NCAA record with 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 coaches’ trust in training camp. 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.
Now, Moreno has a tight grip on the ball, the featured role in Denver’s backfield and Manning’s trust as an integral part of an offense predicated on the pass and protecting the passer.
Notes: LB Danny Trevathan (non-injury) was the only Bronco who missed practice Thursday. LB Nate Irving (right shoulder) and TE Joel Dreessen (knee) returned on a limited basis along with Manning, whose performance was unaffected by his tender ankle, according to Del Rio.