The Denver Broncos’ loss to the Indianapolis Colts can be summed up with two stats – four sacks on Peyton Manning and three turnovers for the Broncos. Those stats (except for the Trindon Holiday fumble, perhaps) disappear if the Broncos’ offensive line is healthy and playing well. It will be key for them – and especially left tackle Chris Clark – to have a bounce-back performance against the Washington Redskins this week.
After enduring season-ending injuries to both Dan Koppen and Ryan Clady, as well as less significant injuries to Orlando Franklin and Chris Kuper, the Broncos’ offensive line has become very thin and inexperienced over the first half of the season.
Manny Ramierez, who usually plays guard, has stepped in at center due to the loss of Koppen, Chris Clark has recorded his first NFL starts this season while replacing Clady and Louis Vasquez has been moved from tackle to guard and back to tackle filling in for the injuries to Franklin and Kuper.
The replacements had performed surprisingly well up to the Jacksonville Jaguars game where some of their weaknesses were exposed, then Franklin was injured during the Dallas Cowboys game. Entering Week 7, the Broncos’ offensive line was clearly the weak point of the offense and the Colts were able to take advantage. After having great success pressuring Manning, there is no question the Redskins – and every team the Broncos’ face from here on out – will likely mirror the Colts’ defensive philosophy and heavily blitz this offensive line.
The Colts focused their pass rush on the Broncos’ inexperienced tackle Clark by overloading him with confusing blitzes or isolating him one-on-one with the NFL’s sack leader Robert Mathis. Clark was simply over matched, both mentally and physically, and will definitely be the focus of the Redskins’ defense this week in Denver.
At one end of the Redskins’ linebacking corps is Ryan Kerrigan. The 16th pick in 2011 draft, he is clearly developing into a Pro-Bowl outside linebacker. In his third year, he is comfortable with NFL schemes and is right on the cusp of greatness. So far this season, he has recorded 5.5 sacks, forced two fumbles and has recorded a pick-six in each of the two previous seasons. He is the paradigm of an athletic and versatile outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and could greatly confuse the Broncos’ offensive line both by blitzing, as well as by faking the rush and dropping back to pass coverage.
The other Redskins’ outside linebacker is Brian Orakpo. Another first-round pick, at 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, he is long and very athletic with a rare blend of power, speed and flexibility to make offensive tackles look silly. He has not complied elite statistics this year, recording only three sacks, an interception and three passes defended, but as a two-time Pro Bowler in his five-year career, he has proven he is a consistent force off the edge and a physical challenge for a linemen like Clark.
Even though Clark was pummeled last week in the Colts game, he is still a young and promising tackle. It will be interesting to see how he responds to such adversity. If he can take last week’s game as a learning experience and motivational tool, he has the skills the develop into a legitimate NFL starter, but it will be key for him to play well this Sunday. All eyes will be on Clark and the offensive line this week; if they under perform again, do not be surprised to see major changes along that front during the Broncos’ bye week.
Written by John Spina. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter @jsspina24.