I’d like to start today with a simple analysis of where the offensive line was going into Thursday’s game and what I'd expected out of them. I had hoped to write this last week, but life went ahead and interceded. It happens to us all.
There two situations that I expected to affect this line, and they’re likely to be around for a few games, at the least. Let’s cover them:
First and foremost is the move of Manny Ramirez to center. This has several ramifications - Manny isn’t a natural center and doesn’t have a lot of experience there. The center has to make a lot of calls, including adjustments - it takes a substantial intellect, which is one reason that testing shows offensive linemen rank second in average IQ, with quarterbacks just ahead of them. That Manny has taken this on with so little preparation time is a testament to that aspect of the man. He’s also a player who struggled at guard at first, but became more effective than was Chris Kuper.
I expect him to grow into this role, but I don’t expect to wave a magic wand and have him fully effective. You shouldn’t either - but he’s a gamer.
Ramirez was slightly better against the pass than the run and not great against either, but I have no qualms about his play. He’s not a natural run blocker in general, but he improved in both areas at guard last season, so I’ll assume he’s going to improve some at center until he doesn’t.
The second issue, of course, is the health of Ryan Clady. We saw him commit a minor penalty as well as give up a sack and four pressures. He’s knocking the rust off. We’ve seen how good he can be, and line coach Dave Magazu’s work with him revitalized his play last year. I don’t see a reason to believe that he’ll be any less effective when he’s fully healthy. He did manage to completely pancake one guy, so the same old Clady is already coming through. However - run blocking was his worst aspect. That’s also something he improved on greatly last year - he’ll need a little time to get back to that.
Zane Beadles wasn’t as good against the pass rush as he can be - he gave up a sack, a hit, and a hurry, but he also had a nice game against that tough Ravens defensive line in terms of his run blocking, grading well into positive territory according to PFF.
Louis Vasquez committed only the second penalty of his career, but did not give up a sack, hit, or hurry. He's a rock in pass protection. Like Ramirez and Clady, he graded out negatively in run blocking. He had the best numbers on the team in pass pro, though.
Orlando Franklin had the best overall grade of all the linemen - and surprisingly, he graded out higher protecting the pass than the run. In the opener, exactly one offensive lineman had a positive grade in run blocking, and that was Beadles. Even Franklin had a negative grade, albeit a slight one.
This may sound odd, but it also shows how much Franklin’s matured in his technique. Not that he didn’t score well - he scored about evenly between positives and negatives. He also scored evenly between his pass and run blocking. This a guy who struggled to kickstep properly to the right in his first year in Denver - his run blocking was powerful and effective, but he often struggled in pass pro. That was after four years at left guard and left tackle in college, so the movement to the right took some coaching and some time.
Magazu lowered Franklin's stance, changed how he used his hands, and kept his shoulders at the proper angle to the knees. Now he has his technique down, and he usually moves quickly and smoothly. He’s still a monster - just a better rounded one. It was a tough game and a first game as well - they’re usually sloppy, and in some ways, this one was. It wasn’t anything I’d worry about.
Overall, they didn't run block as well as I expect they will, but for the most part, their pass pro was outstanding. The Ravens have a very good pass rush, Elvis Dumervil had a very good game, and Peyton Manning still had enough time far more often than not. That’s impressive work. The downside was that Manning was sacked three times, but this was a champion team that Denver was playing. Vasquez and Franklin did the best work in protection. The outlier was Beadles - he was pretty far into the negatives in pass protection. That might be something to watch: he solved it last year.
Some of this is simply that for all Baltimore’s problems with receivers and their defensive secondary, their front defensive group is stellar. Sure, Ray Lewis retired, but Terrell Suggs is playing like Ray used to, and they have fine linebackers. Haloti Ngata is still among the best in the game. Chris Canty was a great pickup - he was dealing with knee problems for a long time, but he’s healthy and he’s talented. They have a hell of a line and they often were in the backfield on run plays. No back does well against that kind of pressure. Willis McGahee did better than most when he was in Denver, but the problem is the linemen far more than the running backs, sad to say.
Or not so sad, since keeping Peyton up and happy is the key to the Broncos' year. I thought that Knowshon Moreno was fairly good in protection and that Ronnie Hillman, who still gets a lot of complaining, did a nice job on both blocking and on his two receptions for 27 yards - he needs someone to open a lane for him. He had the highest yards per attempt of the group. Montee Ball will be a good back - he's just learning the protection schemes and getting used to the speed of the pro game (like 99% of the rookies), but there are already glimpses of his potential.
That's my take, for what it's worth. When you look at the film and grade out the line, you can see why the running backs aren't getting their yards, and why Peyton is able to be, well, Peyton. Perhaps the line is so focused on pass blocking that it influences their run work a bit - or, you can tip your hat to Baltimore’s pressure, which is more my sense of it.
It comes down to a few simple things. Clady is just getting back from injury - he's historically not that good a run blocker (although he’s improved a lot), but he'll be more than adequate. That's where Beadles often shines - his pulling and second level work are just excellent. Manny isn't that great a run blocker yet, which makes both guards less effective as they often have to help him out. Vasquez has never had good run blocking numbers anyway; I’d give him a year or so of coaching to work that out. Franklin, of course, is generally a monster run blocker - he'll get back to it. When that happens with most of the linemen, you'll see the running backs' per-carry averages go up quite a bit.
Baltimore has a very tough defense. The Giants historically do as well, although in their play against Dallas, they weren’t as good as they have been. I’m looking forward to breaking their tape down.