ENGLEWOOD Its one thing to block for a quarterback. Its 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 quarterbacks surgically repaired neck.
I dont know if you can say its 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 weeks game against Carolina, when Charles Johnson went in untouched for a sack and a 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 Mannings jersey clean and his body free of injuries.
They have done a great job, and certainly every quarterback appreciates it when you dont 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 now is third. Maybe most importantly, the Broncos won eight regular-season games last year; with a victory Sunday against the Chargers, theyll reach No. 7 this year before Thanksgiving.
Theres definitely a transition, Beadles said. But having a guy like Peyton, he knows where hes going with the ball. He gets rid of the ball. Thats helped a lot with the transition. Now, weve kind of settled in. Weve had a couple good games here, and weve got to keep doing that.
Manning never will be known as fleet, and he certainly didnt win any style points with a 6-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 thats 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 Mannings biggest friend when it comes to building chemistry with the linemen.
Mannings communication doesnt stop with his trademark audibles at the line of scrimmage. He constantly is coaching on the sideline. An NFL Films clip from last weeks 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 (John) Fox really encouraged us to buy into it. Its something where Dan Koppen will say something, Zane will say something, and its just everybody kind of saying, Hey, whats going on out there; heres what I need to do better; heres what we can do better. I think its been pretty effective for us.
Fox gives credit to the linemen, but he said running backs, tight ends and receivers also have played into one of Denvers best seasons in the sack department. This team remains 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.
Its guys in film study understanding whats happening before it happens, Fox said.
What the linemen dont focus on, so much, is the résumé of the man theyre protecting.
You cant consciously think about that, Beadles said. Nobody wants to be that guy who gives up the sack, obviously. Thats our whole job. But youre not thinking about whos back there. Youre thinking about your technique, what youve got to do to get the job done. Thats pretty much it.