ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It’s one thing to block for a quarterback. It’s quite another when that quarterback is Peyton Manning, the NFL version of a national treasure.
As soon as the Broncos signed Manning in the offseason, the stakes for the Denver offensive linemen rose considerably. For sure, nobody wants to be the guy who gives up a sack, and in this case, nobody wants to be the guy who gives up the hit that could do serious damage to their quarterback’s surgically repaired neck.
“I don’t know if you can say it’s added pressure,” offensive line coach Dave Magazu said. “I think they respect the fact of who we have back there. If their job is to protect you as a quarterback back there, I believe they would put forth their best effort.”
So far, all is going well for Manning and his new line.
Through nine games, the Broncos (6-3) have allowed only 11 sacks — tied with Houston for the least allowed and alone in the lead with the fewest number of sacks allowed per pass play. Before a protection mix-up in last week’s game against Carolina, when Charles Johnson went in untouched for a sack and strip against Manning, the Broncos had gone three games without allowing a quarterback sack.
Despite that hiccup, the linemen — Orlando Franklin, Ryan Clady, Zane Beadles, Dan Koppen and Chris Kuper — have done a solid job keeping Manning’s jersey clean and his body free of injuries.
“They have done a great job and certainly every quarterback appreciates it when you don’t get sacked,” Manning said.
That the Bronco linemen are turning into stout pass protectors is a tribute to the versatility every holdover from the 2011 offense has shown as Denver has transformed itself from a running to a passing team.
Last year, with Tim Tebow at quarterback, Denver ran 56 percent of the time, and quite often against defenses playing eight- and nine-man fronts.
This year, the Broncos throw it 57 percent of the time. A running game that finished last season ranked first has dropped to 22nd. A pass offense that finished last season ranked 31st is now third. Maybe most importantly, the Broncos won eight regular-season games last year; with a victory Sunday against the Chargers, they’ll reach No. 7 this year before Thanksgiving.
“There’s definitely a transition,” Beadles said. “But having a guy like Peyton, he knows where he’s going with the ball. He gets rid of the ball. That’s helped a lot with the transition. Now, we’ve kind of settled in. We’ve had a couple good games here and we’ve got to keep doing that.”
Manning will never be known as fleet and he certainly didn’t win any style points with a six-yard scramble last Sunday that ended with him plunking awkwardly to the turf as he tried to slide legs-first but got tangled up by his knee brace.
“Not pretty,” Manning called both the play and the ribbing that’s ensued.
But he has shown some nimbleness this year, picking and poking his way through the pocket, throwing on the run and sometimes across his body.
As is the case with the relationship with his receivers, time has been Manning’s biggest friend when it comes to building chemistry with the linemen.
Manning’s communication doesn’t stop with his trademark audibles at the line of scrimmage. He is constantly coaching on the sideline. An NFL Films clip from last week’s game shows him urging the linemen to put the mistakes behind them and get ready for the next series after the Broncos lost fumbles on consecutive drives against the Panthers.
“We kind of call it our ‘debriefing session,'” Manning said. “We had some military guys come in and speak to us, and that was something that they talked about. So, Coach Fox really encouraged us to buy into it. It’s something where Dan Koppen will say something, Zane will say something, and it’s just everybody kind of saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on out there, here’s what I need to do better, here’s what we can do better.’ I think it’s been pretty effective for us.”
Coach John Fox gives credit to the linemen, but says running backs, tight ends and receivers have also played into one of Denver’s best seasons in the sack department. This team is still in the running to become only the third in Broncos history to allow fewer than 20 sacks. The 2008 team, with Jay Cutler at quarterback, allowed only 12, and the 2004 team, with Jake Plummer, allowed 15.
“It’s guys in film study understanding what’s happening before it happens,” Fox said.
What the linemen don’t focus on, so much, is the resume of the man they’re protecting.
“You can’t consciously think about that,” Beadles said. “Nobody wants to be that guy who gives up the sack, obviously. That’s our whole job. But you’re not thinking about who’s back there. You’re thinking about your technique, what you’ve got to do to get the job done. That’s pretty much it.”
Notes: DE Elvis Dumervil missed practice with a shoulder strain suffered in Sunday’s game against Carolina. … LB D.J. Williams said he felt good in his first practice of the season after missing nine games on suspension. “Just good to be back out there,” he said. He said he was nervous about getting winded but it turned out to not be a problem. Fox on Williams: “He definitely has been working. He’s been getting ready physically, paying attention in the meetings and he had a good first day.” … OL Chris Kuper (ankle) was limited.