Today's Denver Bronco game against the St. Louis Rams was a perfect exercise about why it has become important for the Broncos to establish the running game early, and why the Broncos have been juggling around the offensive linemen to find a combination that works.
I won't get too deeply into today's game, except to say that that the offensive line was not the sole reason, or necessarily the main reason, the Broncos lost today. But the offensive line tends to get overlooked when figuring out why the Broncos are having some difficulties against certain teams.
It's easy to look at the defense, which made the headlines because of the money given to players such as DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward, but that really isn't the reason the Broncos are having issues against teams whose strong point is having a quality defensive line -- something the Rams have, as well as the Seahawks (before the injury to Brandon Mebane, anyway) and the Jets, both teams the Broncos have played, and the Dolphins, the next team on Denver's schedule.
The issue goes back in part to Peyton Manning, who normally excels against attacking blitzes, but is now becoming too concerned with not taking hits and sacks, and so he tends to force some throws he shouldn't make. This especially became a problem today, when Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas left the game with injuries, and Peyton became too focused on threading the ball to Jacob Tamme, which led to one of his two interceptions and several incompletions. But one reason why he seems to be doing this is because he seems to not trust his offensive line like he should.
And that brings me to the offensive line. Last season, as every Bronco fan will recall, Chris Clark did a good job as left tackle when Ryan Clady was lost for the season to an injury, Manny Ramirez proved to be a capable center, Orlando Franklin was emerging as a top right tackle and Louis Vasquez had an All-Pro season. Then there was Zane Beadles, who excelled as a run blocker but was poor in pass protection.
The offensive line struggled in last season's Super Bowl, in large part because the Seattle Seahawks had multiple players they could rotate and move around on the defensive line, allowing them to contain the running game and generate pressure from different spots. The Broncos, in recognizing this, opted to let Beadles depart in free agency, then move Franklin to guard and put Clark at right tackle, in hopes of improving both the run blocking and pass protection.
In the first half of the season, the pass protection was generally good but the run blocking was not. Franklin has actually been good at left guard, but Ramirez has not looked comfortable playing alongside him, and Clark struggled with run blocking. Because the run blocking wasn't there, this allowed teams to play more often against the pass, particularly when they had a defensive line that could get a push up front. This, in turn, has affected Peyton and what he is able to do well.
The Broncos have since tried Paul Cornick at right tackle, but an injury during practice took him out of the lineup. They have since moved Vasquez to right tackle, Ramirez to right guard, and inserted Will Montgomery at center. Montgomery has been adequate, but Ramirez continues to struggle. So this has prompted the Broncos to work out Richie Incognito, which in turn has drawn concerns about whether or not he's the right guy to bring into the Broncos' locker room.
Getting back to what the Broncos did this past offseason, I believe they had the right idea in giving Clark a shot at starting at right tackle, but his performance has shown he just isn't comfortable in that spot. One can use hindsight bias to say that Franklin should have remained at right tackle and the Broncos should have signed a low-priced veteran to play left guard (along with the signing of Montgomery). But it would make sense to move Franklin back to right tackle, where he was very effective last season, and slide Vasquez back to right guard. Montgomery should remain the starting center, and that leaves the left guard spot. It might be worth one more shot with Ramirez to see if he fits better there.
If not, then the Broncos may have to bite the bullet and bring in Incognito. I am well aware of his reputation and that it goes far beyond the bullying incident with Jonathan Martin last season. But given that the Broncos are intent on getting to the Super Bowl this season, they may have to make the move in order to get better up front.
Let me be clear that I do have mixed feelings about signing Incognito. On one hand, I am concerned about the potential distraction he could bring to the team. There would certainly be a lot of pundits talking about whether or not it's a good idea to have him in the locker room and that it shows the Broncos are overly desperate to win a Super Bowl. Points will be raised that Incognito has never shown he can elevate the play of his teammates, as some might argue when the Broncos had Bill Romanowski in the locker room back in the late 1990s.
On the other hand, I believe the Broncos now have a locker room environment that should allow them to nip such issues in the bud. We all know about the list of how many times Bronco players have been arrested for off-field incidents, but it's worth noting the bulk of those occurred under Mike Shanahan. One of the problems with Shanahan was that it seemed he had no problem bringing any player into the locker room, so long as his teams were a playoff contender, and he paid little mind to those off-field incidents.
This does not appear to be the case with John Fox, who has several players in the locker room who do not tolerate serious issues that could disrupt the locker room. Peyton Manning, Terrance Knighton, DeMarcus Ware and Chris Harris are all players who lead the locker room and expect that their teammates be good to each other and not allow incidents to become a distraction. Knighton and Harris in particular have been vocal about how players need to conduct themselves properly. I would suspect they would be two of the first players to remind Incognito that the actions he has perpetrated in the past are not to be tolerated.
Regardless of what the Broncos decide to do about Incognito, though, they do need to move Franklin back to right tackle, Vasquez back to right guard, and find somebody else to play left guard, whether that is Ramirez, Ben Garland, or somebody else they sign. Then, in the offseason, they need to re-sign Franklin and keep him at right tackle, get Clady to restructure his contract to free up cap space, then consider their options at center and left guard. They will definitely need to take one early in the 2015 draft, while deciding what low priced free agents may need to be brought in. I would suspect the Broncos will part ways with Ramirez, and they may do the same with Clark if they are convinced that Michael Schofield is ready to step up as the new backup tackle behind Clady.
But the lesson to be learned is that sometimes linemen aren't going to be comfortable in a certain position, as definitely has been the case with Clark at right tackle, and that it sometimes works better to just replace a departing player with someone who can comfortably play the open position on the line.