DENVER – Revamping the offensive line has become an annual rite of spring in Denver.
This time, it appears to be paying off.
Rediscovering a balance that was elusive almost all last season, the Broncos rushed for 146 yards – all but four of those from rookies Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman – and passed for 329 yards in their 27-24 win over Seattle.
It all started up front, where all five O-linemen played all 74 snaps and drew zero penalty flags.
“Offensive line was incredible,” said quarterback Case Keenum, who was sacked just once. “It was awesome to watch those guys. There were some plays where I had so much time in the pocket. I’m going to be so excited to watch the film and see those guys play.”
The Broncos allowed a whopping 52 sacks last season, an average of more than three a game, prompting them to make several changes in the offseason.
Coach Vance Joseph replaced O-line coach Jeff Davidson with two coaches, one (Chris Strausser) to focus on the tackles and another (Sean Kugler) to tutor the centers and guards.
General manager John Elway jettisoned oft-injured Menelik Watson despite a nearly $7 million salary cap hit and traded for ninth-year right tackle Jared Veldheer.
They moved guard Ron Leary back to his natural left side, making room for Connor McGovern, their strongest lineman, on the right side and giving a big assist to second-year left tackle Garett Bolles.
And their anchor – center Matt Paradis – participated in the entire offseason program for the first time since college after undergoing double hip surgery two summers ago.
The tackles didn’t commit a single penalty, something that was a common occurrence last season.
“Jared played really well and Bolles did some good things. He blocked his guy. He’s got a couple of mental things he’s got to clean up, but as far as tackles, we played really well,” Joseph said. “We had one sack and the one sack was on the quick game and the ball should have probably been in the flat.
“So, offensive line-wise, I’ve been really, really pleased from preseason until now how they’ve played in the run game and the pass game,” Joseph said. “And that’s the key. If we’re going to win games and keep Case clean and help Case play better and better each week we’ve got to run the football and protect Case.
“So far, so good with those guys playing so well for us.”
One thing the Broncos are doing to help Bolles, an athletic but raw tackle who only played one season of major college football at Utah, is not setting up so deep. That allows him to better use his athleticism to counter edge rushers, who don’t have as much of a running start, either.
“He’s a long, athletic tackle, so we’re coaching him to set quicker and not give as much ground, to use his quickness on guys,” Joseph said. “If you’re facing a great rusher and you give him space, he can bull (rush you), he can get around you. So, we’re getting Garett on guys quicker, so he can use his feet and his great quickness to stay in front of guys and that’s preventing him from being so soft in the pocket like he was last year.
“So, that’s more about Chris Strausser and Sean Kugler coaching him differently this year. And having Leary next to him, obviously the mental part of the game, it helps having a veteran next to you. So, I’ve been pleased with the entire offensive line. They’re playing good right now and hopefully we can continue to play good there.”
Bolles said playing next to Leary is a godsend and getting instruction from the two-coach system has helped him take a big jump from his flag-filled rookie season.
“I’m excited to see where this goes because we’re right on track and we’re headed in a good direction,” Bolles said.
That said, he’s not about to start celebrating after just one game, no matter how clean.
“I mean, it’s a clean game but it’s only Game 1. We’ve got 15 other games we’ve got to go through,” Bolles said. “There’s some things we have to fix, but a fast start in a season is always a good thing. We made a baseline where we’re at and we know where we need to go.
“I have a great group of dudes. The O-line room is special. This team is special and we’re going to go in the right direction as long as we put in the work and the effort, which we are.”