Lost in the 24-hour-a-day analysis of Peyton Manning’s right arm is all that’s gone wrong with his offensive line the past seven months.
So, Peyton, what was going through your 39-year-old mind when your decision to return for an 18th season was followed by the rapid unraveling of your offensive line?
“I don’t have a whole lot for you on that,” Manning said Wednesday during a conference call with Twin Cities media. “All I’ll say is we got five guys that are fighting their tails off every snap.”
The Broncos (3-0) head into Sunday’s game against the visiting Vikings (2-1) with five starting linemen who weren’t in these roles at the end of last season. There’s a rookie center, a first-year starter at left tackle, a right guard who moved from right tackle, a right tackle from Kansas City, and a 33-year-old left guard who was signed off the street in late August.
Mix it all together and what do you get, at least initially? You get Manning tying a career high for sacks through three games (eight). You get the Broncos setting an NFL record as the first 3-0 team to fall short of 70 yards rushing in each of its first three games.
You also get an opposing defensive line coach who wants to make sure his players don’t read that last paragraph and underestimate a Manning-led offense that ranks 30th in the league and dead last in yards per carry (2.6).
“I think they’re still pretty good, so I don’t buy into the hype,” Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. “The film doesn’t lie to me. Peyton’s still throwing the ball well when he needs to. When they got to have a run, they find the ability to get the run.
“I don’t look at this group and think they’re not very good. I look at their group and think they got good football players and they’re still trying to figure out how to play together. If we don’t play well, they’ll run the ball up our behinds.”
The Broncos’ shake-up along the offensive line began March 10 when 27-year-old left guard Orlando Franklin, a 6-7, 330-pounder and arguably the team’s most promising young lineman, left via free agency to join AFC West rival San Diego.
It continued April 30 when the Broncos used starting center Manny Ramirez as part of a package deal with Detroit to move up five spots and select linebacker Shane Ray.
It bottomed out on May 29 when two-time first-team All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady was lost for the season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament during an offseason practice.
Rookie Ty Sambrailo, a second-round pick from Colorado State, has stepped in for Clady. He’ll be the primary blocker against Vikings right end Everson Griffen, who has a team-high three sacks, including 1 ½ in Sunday’s win over the Chargers.
“I don’t know anything about him,” Griffen said. “All I know is he’s No. 74. I’ve watched him on tape. I got my keys on him. That’s all I know about him.”
The center is Matt Paradis, a 2014 sixth-rounder who entered the season with 33 career snaps. The guards are seven-year veteran Louis Vasquez on the right and 11-year veteran Evan Mathis, the late signing, on the left.
The right tackle is Cretin-Derham Hall grad Ryan Harris. He was a Bronco from 2007 to 2010, out of football because of a back injury in 2011, in Houston for two years and a starter for the Chiefs last season.
“They haven’t played together a lot,” Manning said. “I just appreciate the effort that they’re giving, and I think they’re improving just because of the snaps and the reps together.
“Anybody would tell you, just like a quarterback and receiver, that it’s not an overnight process. The idea for anybody, all of us, is we’re kind of forming our identity and playing together for the first time. If we can win games while we’re improving, I think that’s what you’re looking for.”