Entering the biggest week of the season, the Denver Broncos have hopefully healed up at multiple positions. Big names like DeMarcus Ware and Emmanuel Sanders have taken beatings through six games and the offensive line is no different.
The offensive line has been a big question since January with the eventual departure of four of the five starting men up front. Now, with two late additions and a shuffling of players due to injury, the line has shown progress and they are hoping it will soon pay off in the form of a breakout game for the entire unit.
“We are pretty young up front and I think that having the experience to play any position you need to helps down the road. This sport is not injury free as everyone knows. Stuff is going to happen and for the coaching staff and front office to have the confidence to be able to put a lot of guys in different places is key,” left tackle Ty Sambrailo said Monday of the team’s recent play.
Through six games, the Broncos have struggled to run the ball and early in the season were allowing opponents to get to Peyton Manning regularly. Sambrailo suffered a shoulder injury in the week three win against the San Fransisco 49ers and Evan Mathis‘ late arrival to the team hurt his initial play, but he has rebounded. Louis Vasquez has battled through nagging leg injuries and Matt Paradis has learned quickly in what amounts to his rookie season at center. The two tackle positions have been a rotational effort by Ryan Harris, Tyler Polumbus (signed to the team Sept. 30) and Michael Schofield the last three games. After the bye week, head coach Gary Kubiak was encouraged to have all of them back at practice Monday.
“This will be probably the first week in about a month that we actually start the week with them all in place, where we’re going. Evan [Mathis] looks good coming off the break. That was important. Lou [Louis Vasquez] looks better coming off the break. Hopefully we’ll get a full week out of all of them as we prepare for this one.”
Although the team had to make several changes to the starting offensive line, the statistics suggest they are improving as a unit. After giving up eight sacks in the first three games, the Broncos have only allowed eight in the last three, including zero against the Cleveland Browns. They have also moved the ball better as a whole on offense. Ronnie Hillman had a breakout game against the Browns on the ground, gaining 111 yards rushing. Rookie Max Garcia, who saw some more playing time in Cleveland at left guard, has seen the improvement of the team week-to-week and believes that they will only get better through the experience of each game.
“I think we have been doing a good job of getting just a little bit better every week,” he said. “We haven’t made tremendous strides but every week we are just getting that much better. I think by the end of the season we will be at where we want to be and peaking at the right time.”
Polumbus understands what it takes to learn the zone-blocking scheme and has admired how his new teammates are adjusting to Kubiak’s system:
“It’s a good group. This scheme just takes time no matter what and I’ve been in this scheme for basically seven out of my eight years and every time you start from the ground up it takes some time. I’ve been impressed with the guys. They are learning it well and things are starting to click.”
According to Pro Football Focus, of the starting five lineman this season, each player has had their worst outing in their first or second start of the year and showed improvement in the subsequent games. Mathis in particular has played exceptionally well, ranking 12th among the league’s guards.
The eight-year veteran Polumbus knows that game experience and having players that can play multiple position, is not only vital to a team’s success but also a necessity for any NFL team as the season continues.
“I’ve been in seasons where I’ve had to play every position but center,” he said. “You just never know what is going to happen, who might go down and you have to have versatility,” he stated. “The goal is to have continuity and have the same guys play the whole season, but that is not always realistic. You have to have guys that are ready to plug into a spot they may not have been in all the time.”
The Green Bay Packers represent possibly the line’s biggest test of the season, despite already playing some very impressive defensive lines. The Packers trail only the Broncos in sacks on the year with 23. They also have allowed the lowest points per game in the NFL. Julius Peppers looks as invigorated as Ware and has 5.5 sacks. Linebacker Clay Matthews has added 4.5. The Broncos offense has been under heavy scrutiny despite the 6-0 start and that fact hasn’t been missed by the big men upfront. Sunday’s challenge is one Garcia says they are more than ready for:
“We have been getting a lot of negative criticism from the media’s perspective. To them we are pretty much 0-6, so we want to go out and show that we can compete with anyone in the league – be productive and win the big games. A lot of guys are pumped up and excited but it is just another ball game and if we prepare the right way we will be satisfied with the outcome.”
Sunday’s game certainly is not the biggest game of the year but it certainly is the biggest test of the season. Sambrailo should be able to return to left tackle and Kubiak stated Monday that he would be the starter if he can play. That leaves a hand full of able bodies to play right tackle and give breathers to any interior lineman who may need the break. The Broncos line has gained experience and maybe a chip on their shoulder as the team remains unbeaten but criticized all the same. Shutting down the Packers defense would shut up a lot of people and legitimize any perceived improvement.