They Ain’t Heavy; They’re My Broncos: Assessing the offensive line after eight games

The Broncos took on Mike Shanahan’s squad in Week 8, and Washington did well to keep themselves in the game for three quarters, before the proverbial roof fell in on them. Denver's habit of finding their adjustments at and after halftime made another furious resurgence, and they put up 31 points in the fourth quarter alone.

Moderately Obscure Fact - Shanny's team has two former Broncos starting on the offensive line: former center Kory Lichtensteiger is at left guard (6-2, 284), and Tyler Polumbus is at right tackle. Tyler’s listed at 6-8 and 305 lb, which is light for a tackle (and it shows at times when he’s blown off the ball). He did fairly well in pass pro, with only one QB hit and a hurry, but his run blocking wasn’t sharp. This is a case where his stats matter less than how he played - this should give you an idea of what I mean.

Lichtensteiger gave up an unblocked sack, three hits, and three hurries - and not the ones that you’d argue about, either. It was his worst game of the season, and he ended it with a minus-3.8 rating. Denver’s defensive line had a lot to do with that, too.

Shanahan has always believed that sufficiently developed technique gives the blockers on his descendent of the West Coast Offense the power to make his OL effective. He often has achieved that over the years, but towards the end of his tenure in Denver, it was clear that his linemen were wearing down later within both games and seasons.

It went far beyond this, but one reason the Broncos laid 38 unanswered points on Washington in the second half is that the bigger, well-conditioned, altitude-acclimated linemen of the Broncos started taking over the line of scrimmage. As so many of us saw over the years, the smaller linemen often start getting pushed around later in the game and/or season.

John Elway and John Fox's Broncos sport bigger linemen, which is already paying off to the team's benefit. Let's check in on Denver's starting line at midseason:

Left Tackle - Chris Clark - 6-5, 305

Clark’s a walking advertisement for the triumph of technique and effort over size. Since taking over for Ryan Clady, Clark has turned in an unexpectedly impressive performance. He’s allowed four sacks - three of them came against Robert Mathis - with one hit and seven hurries.

Clark has concretized the trust Denver showed in him by giving him a two-year extension contract prior to Clady's injury. According to PFF, he’s eighth in the league in pass blocking efficiency at 96.2; Clark deserves every kudo he receives this season.

Left Guard - Zane Beadles - 6-4, 305

Zane has dropped off somewhat from his performance last year, but that’s not to say that he’s playing badly. He’d given up just a single sack, one penalty, and four QB hits. However, 21 QB hurries are too many, especially when protecting Peyton Manning; but Manning doesn’t seem fazed by it.

Beadles continues to play well against the run - the recently successful fourth-and-short plays were in part a tribute to how much better the interior of the line, including his contribution, is playing. His PBE, though, has dropped to 47th in the league at 94.3. That’s not good.

Center - Manny Ramirez - 6-3, 320

Manny has taken on the center slot, which had been somewhat shaky under J.D. Walton and has shown that he’s a better run blocker and at least as good a pass protector.

Ramirez cut his NFL teeth for Denver by taking over for Chris Kuper at right guard last season; you could see him improve in 2012 week to week, and he’s doing the same this season. He’s committed just three penalties this year, but he hasn’t given up a single QB hit.

With a single sack and just four hurries allowed, and his increased power in the run-blocking game, Denver is suddenly stronger running up the middle, improving Knowshon Moreno’s performance and giving Peyton yet another weapon for his arsenal.

Manny’s PBE is second in the league among starting centers, at 98.8.

Right Guard - Louis Vasquez - 6-5, 335

Louis Vasquez is currently the best all-around lineman the Broncos have, and one of the best in the league. He hasn’t give up a single sack or QB hit this year, and only has accounted for five hurries. Although Vasquez was not as good a run blocker as he was at pass blocking in San Diego, that’s changing (and may have been as much a matter of scheme and coaching as one of skill).

He’s teaming well with both Ramirez and Orlando Franklin when run blocking: Vasquez, Ramirez, and Franklin are starting to form a mobile titanium wall along the offensive right side. The addition of two and three tight ends on some play formations (both run and pass) have left opposing defenses confused. Louis also tops all starting NFL guards with a 99.0 PBE.

Right Tackle - Orlando Franklin - 6-7, 320

Franklin has taken the long road to get to the NFL. He was born in Jamaica, raised in Canada, and moved to Florida during high school to get experience in American football. After three seasons as left guard at the U, he took over the left tackle position.

He’s shown no major difficulties in making the move to right tackle since 2011. Despite fighting a left knee injury that caused him to miss the Indianapolis game the week before, Franklin played well against Washington. He gave up his first sack of the year, but only gave up a single hurry, without a QB hit.

For the season, he has surrendered a lone sack, two QB hits, and six hurries - he also ranks second in the league in pass blocking efficiency among tackles, at 97.5; he’s also continued to be a beast in the running game, helping spring KM for a couple of his TDs.

Summary

The 2013 Denver Broncos are overcoming problems with injuries by having their next men up improving on the starters: Manny Ramirez has taken over the center slot, and doesn’t seem to want to give it back (he also outplayed Chris Kuper in 2012).

Clark isn’t as good as Ryan Clady, but he’s played exceptionally well - his ranking of eighth among starting tackles in PBE is particularly impressive. Peyton’s fast release and cybernetic mind makes every lineman better, but to have four of the five starters in the top ten for PBE and to stay around 16th in gross run yards says to me that the linemen are playing lights out. The run game is stronger than last year, too.

It wouldn’t be right to talk about the run game without acknowledging the level at which Moreno is playing; his eight rushing TDs are already a new career high for him. His 456 rushing yards and 287 through the air (plus another TD), added to the quality of blocking he brings to the table, have made Knowshon the player the Broncos thought they were getting in 2009. Congratulations to him.

Considering that Denver has lost both starting tackles (one for the season) and their starting center, the depth that John Elway and Co. have put together becomes even more apparent. ‘Next man up’ only matters when that next man can fill the empty shoes in front of him.

This year is one for the ages.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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