Peyton Manning loses one of his key weapons

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Peyton Manning loses one of his key weapons

From Comcast SportsNetENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -- The lockers of the running backs who might take Willis McGahee's spot in the Broncos lineup are conveniently lined up, four in a row.Lance Ball. Knowshon Moreno. Jeremiah Johnson. Ronnie Hillman.Barring an unlikely free agent signing, some combination of those four will be asked to fill in for the foreseeable future for Denver's leading rusher, McGahee, who tore a ligament in his right knee and will be out for what's expected to be a six-to-eight week stint."We've all got to step up and do our part," Hillman said. "Anyone can be an option."Coach John Fox said McGahee's injury, suffered in the second quarter of Denver's 30-23 victory over San Diego on Sunday, will not require surgery and that the Broncos had no immediate plans to put the 10th-year veteran on injured reserve. Asked about reports that McGahee had also fractured his leg, Fox said, "I don't want to get into too much of the exacts, other than he will not be on IR."By not putting him on injured reserve, the Broncos, at 7-3 and with a three-game lead in the AFC West, could be thinking about a playoff-time return for their leading rusher, who has 731 yards this year and was having one of his best games of the season -- 55 yards on seven carries -- before the injury Sunday.In the meantime, they must find a fill-in for McGahee, who was more reliable than explosive and spearheaded a 19th-ranked running game that's averaging 105.3 per contest. Unlike last season, when Tim Tebow was at the helm, the running game is more complimentary than integral to an offense now run by Peyton Manning.McGahee has built his career on adjusting to circumstances.Back in 2003, he was finishing his college career at Miami and was considered among the very top prospects. But in the Fiesta Bowl, he tore all the ligaments in his left knee. After multiple surgeries, McGahee fell to 23rd in the draft, and even then, he sat out his first NFL season while rehabilitating the knee.From there, he opened his career with three 1,000-yard seasons over his first four years. He went on to surpass 8,000 yards over a sturdy decade at a position where careers are often cut short. The Broncos are his third NFL team and he is ranked first among active players with 33 100-yard games."His leadership. Power running. You talk about a guy who gets you the tough yards. Those are things we're definitely going to miss," cornerback Champ Bailey said. "But there's a good young group behind him."Listed behind McGahee on last week's depth chart was Hillman, the NFL's youngest player at 21 years, 2 months, 5 days old. He's a third-round draft pick out of San Diego State who ran for 1,711 yards for the Aztecs last season and has slowly been getting more playing time with the Broncos as he has picked up the intricacies of NFL pass protection.At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, he looks more like a so-called "change-of-pace" back, though offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said earlier this season that the Broncos hadn't slotted Hillman solely for that. Hillman said he could carry the ball 20 or more times if asked."If it happens, it happens. If not, I'll just come in and play my role," he said.The next candidate is Ball, a fourth-year veteran out of Maryland, who has been a dependable backup and special teams player but is still looking for his first NFL start. Shuttling in and out with Hillman after McGahee went down against the Chargers, Ball's biggest play of the day came when he slid over to block an oncoming Chargers linebacker, allowing Manning time to throw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker.Ball's biggest rushing game came last year at Kansas City -- where the Broncos play next -- when he ran 30 times for 96 yards after both McGahee and Moreno went out with injuries."I think we all have each other's back," Ball said. "If Ronnie needs to come out or if he feels like I need to step in for him, I think we keep it rolling. I think that's our mentality, is we keep the ball rolling."Moreno, the team's 2009 first-round draft pick, recovered from a torn knee ligament in that game at Kansas City last year and was expected to get playing time in 2012. He hasn't been on the active roster, however, since losing a fumble in Week 2 against Atlanta."That was weeks ago. I'm not thinking about that," Moreno said. "All I'm thinking about now is now, and doing the things I need to do to get on the field."Johnson, meanwhile, has been on Denver's practice squad all season -- a demotion of sorts after playing in eight games last season, rushing 14 times for 77 yards."That just gives you more of an attitude to go out there and work a little bit harder and show your teammates and the coaches that you're willing to do anything for that team," he said. "That's what I've been trying to display to my guys, and hopefully they've taken to it."Fox didn't rule out bringing running backs in for a look this week, though signing one would mean finding a roster spot for him. At least at this point, moving McGahee to IR didn't sound like a possibility."Right now, we feel really good about the guys we have," Fox said. "They've trained in our system. It's pretty extensive."Notes: Fox said CB Omar Bolden's (concussion) status would be evaluated day-to-day. ... LB D.J. Williams played 21 snaps in his return and made four tackles. "He had a couple of errors. Just like everybody, he's not perfect," Fox said. "I thought, all in all, he had a very good performance."

Jae Crowder: Bucks came out and "hit us in the mouth" early, good test

Jae Crowder: Bucks came out and "hit us in the mouth" early, good test

Jae Crowder and Brad Stevens react to the Celtics loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night, followed by Kyle Draper and Brian Scalabrine talking about where this loss leaves Boston in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Haggerty: Bruins plan to take it slow with McAvoy, unless . . .

Haggerty: Bruins plan to take it slow with McAvoy, unless . . .

BRIGHTON -- Nobody doubts that 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy is going to be a game-changer down the road for the Boston Bruins.

The Boston University sophomore, expected to be in the NHL next season, is the crown jewel of a draft-and-development movement led by general manager Don Sweeney over the last three years. And if McAvoy hits the ground running with the Providence Bruins over the weekend, he may even make his NHL debut with the Bruins sometime in the next 10 days, even though playing in as much as a single game with Boston this season would burn a year off his entry-level contract.

"[The NHL] is still to be determined. It will be contract first and [the AHL] as a good first step for us," said Sweeney after signing McAvoy to an ATO (Amateur Tryout Agreement). "He's made the decision to leave [college] and we're excited about that process. It leaves some options open [for McAvoy], but first and foremost gets him playing and acclimated to pro hockey."

But there's also the reality that a 19-year-old like McAvoy is going to face challenges in pro hockey. Mastering the defenseman position at the NHL level is an extremely complicated process. It's the reason we see a lot more teenage forwards take the league by storm than teenage D-men, who typically need more development time in the AHL to hone their skills at both ends of the rink.

"[The challenge] would be getting him to figure out what works at this level and what doesn't, just like if he were in Providence," said interim coach Bruce Cassidy about the theoretical possibility of McAvoy playing in Boston soon. "We've used seven defensemen here over the last eight weeks and they've done a good job for us, so we'd have to see where he fit in and go from there . . . I've seen him here and there, but I don't know enough about his individual game at this point to know what he would specifically need to do . . .

"[Defense] is a tougher position in the NHL because mistakes are magnified. If you're a forward you've got another layer of defense to support you, so you can get away with some of that stuff. I think that's why you see generally that most of the rookies that age in the NHL are forwards."

Torey Krug signed with the Bruins out of college five years ago and had a one-game cameo with them before spending the entire next season in Providence. Krug says now that, looking back, he knows he wasn't ready to play in the NHL coming out of school and needed a season to sort things out defensively against bigger, stronger, smarter and faster opponents.

"The speed itself wasn't much of an issue, but if you fall asleep even for a second it's going to turn into a scoring chance for the other team," Krug said of the adjustment from college hockey to the NHL. "These games are not easy to play in, even for veterans in the league . . .

"I thought offensively I was ready [right away], but defensively I had a lot to learn. It's a tough league to play in. Offensively it was fun, but defensively I had my share of hiccups realizing I had to go down to Providence to work on some things."

McAvoy isn't expected to follow Krug's path. He'll get development opportunities at the AHL level at the end of this season just like fellow young D-man Brandon Carlo, who used last spring's AHL experience to vault directly into the NHL this season as a 19-year-old playing top-four minutes right from opening night.

It's also the track taken by Zach Werenski last year with the Columbus Blue Jackets. An AHL playoff run fully prepped him for his breakout season as the league's best rookie defenseman.

"It's a long time ago, but I used that [ATO] myself as a benefit and I've always been an advocate of it, and I think Robbie O'Gara, Danton Heinen and Carlo all [did it]," said Sweeney. "All the players that have been able to come on and play at a very high level against men, generally in a playoff stretch drive or the playoffs themselves, it's a unique [experience].

"When you first turn pro, you're introduced to it at a really high level and you have to adjust to it on the fly. It's about structure and understanding the voices you're hearing. And reading and reacting at the pro level are all very important [skills]. [I think] it's a great on-the-job training exercise and right now Brandon is the best example of it. He's been able to jump into our lineup this year, and that's a testament to him and also the work he did last year."

So the Bruins should take their time with McAvoy, though also allow that he could be a dominant exception to the rule and become a force right out of the chute. It certainly appears Sweeney is going to leave that door ajar,  to make sure the Bruins don't miss out on anything with a young defenseman who's already drawn comparisons to Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty.