The extra bye week is certainly a blessing for the banged up Denver Broncos. They have suffered injuries to players at every level, of every part of their roster. It is certainly a byproduct of the business and for the most part, the team has handled the injuries exceptionally well. One of those spots in particular, is at the two guard positions along the offensive line.

Last week, in the regular season finale against the San Diego Chargers, the two guard positions were shared by three players. Veterans Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez shared playing time with Max Garcia and it was not the first time they did so this season. What was unusual and telling was that for the first time in several weeks neither Vasquez or Mathis appeared on the injury report leading up to the game or after. The team was simply platooning the three players to stay fresh for the playoffs and it looks as though all three have benefited greatly from the strategy.

“This far in the season everybody gets banged up, dinged up and it just helps us keep the pounding off of the body to get us in the postseason healthy, or as healthy as you can,” 2013 All-Pro right guard Louis Vasquez said Thursday of the shared time last Sunday.

The offensive line has been an area of grave concern since the offseason when three out of five starting players along the line left via free agency, where released or traded. Then in May, on the first day of OTAs, star left tackle Ryan Clady went down for the year. Only left with one starting Broncos lineman from the season before, they had to quickly scramble to assemble the line.

At the guards, Vasquez went back to his natural position on the right and Evan Mathis, also an All-Pro guard in 2013, was signed just before the regular season. Garcia came onto the team as a fourth-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Through the season, the team has battled along the line but quickly surpassed their worst sacks allowed mark in the Peyton Manning era and struggled to consistently block the run. In recent weeks they have looked better despite some weekly injury reports listing several, if not all of the starting lineman.

Vasquez and Mathis started the season getting nearly every single offensive snap at their positions. In week eight Mathis sat out some plays, week nine Vasquez sat out several plays and Garcia filled the void at both positions nicely. Garcia continued to step up when called upon and his playing time increased steadily as the veterans got needed rest. Injuries also sidelined both Mathis and Vasquez for whole games. Vasquez missed week 13 with a groin injury and Mathis did not play versus the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 15. Mathis played through ankle and hamstring injuries due to necessity but now feels he is ready thanks to the substitutions late in the regular season.

“I think it did a lot for me. After I got my ankle sprain in the Chicago [Bears] game and I had to come back and play some games where, if we had the option, I probably shouldn’t have played. Then, once we were able to start working that rotation, it allowed me to get my feet back under me,” Mathis said Thursday. “I think this past game I felt as healthy as I have all year. It has definitely done a lot for my overall health as well as the development of a really young player like Max [Garcia].”

As of Monday, Mathis has played in 73 percent of offensive snaps, Vasquez 79.2, and Garcia as field in the rest at 48.9 percent. All three have also played to their strengths. Mathis currently ranks seventh among NFL guards on Pro Football Focus (PFF) and has once again been dominant in the run with a run blocking grade of 28. Vasquez and Garcia rank in the forties overall but have combined for just two sacks in over 1,400 total snaps.

The key, after 17 weeks of regular season play, is surely health and Garcia’s availability has been paramount during what has been an extremely tough task along the entire line. Each player is entering the bye week relatively healthy and it can be attributed to each player’s willingness to buy into the coaching staff’s philosophy, whether injured or not.

“It just takes less reps off of those older vets and lets me have some experience and lets me learn every game. I think it is extremely valuable and it was a good strategy by the coaches this year to implement that,” Garcia said Thursday.

Vasquez, in his seventh year in the NFL, knows that a rookie’s ability to play both guard positions in his first year and hold his own is a valuable asset and knows it has helped the team saying, “Max has done a tremendous job stepping in there, keeping the level of play up and its paid dividends for us.”

The Broncos are certainly not where they would like to be along the offensive line. The right tackle position remains an immense area of concern and often blitzes still catch their youth off guard but with the playoffs here there is little they can do except fight with who they have. The three guards certainly have made it work, especially in recent weeks, while also getting healthy.

Gary Kubiak has loads of concerns, strategically and health-wise, but finally it seems the guards are not on his list. The Broncos are once again the top seed in the playoffs, but this season it was anything but easy and maybe that has been the best thing for them. Vasquez, a smart, gritty player certainly thinks so.

“It has taken everybody on this team, literally everybody to get where we are at. We fought, scratched and clawed our way to the position we are at. The guard rotation and guys not batting an eye at ‘the next man up’ when a case arises just shows the heart and dedication of our team.”

Hopefully that heart stays hungry and what got them to week 17 gets them to San Francisco.

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