NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
Until now, Ryan Clady had never missed a game. In 2010, he returned just four and a half months after tearing a patella tendon; he wasn't as effective as he had been, but he slogged through regardless. Two years later, he played through rotator cuff pain that necessitated surgery after the season.
But a tear to the Lisfranc joint in Clady's left foot will be too much to overcome. The Broncos placed him on injured reserve Wednesday, ending his season and confirming that he will need surgery to repair the foot.
Clady was hurt when Giants defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins fell on the back of his left ankle with 3:40 left in the Broncos' 41-23 win at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Clady was able to slowly walk off the field, but subsequent evaluations revealed the Lisfranc injury.
With protection of Peyton Manning the Broncos' first, second and third offensive priority, that makes Chris Clark, a heretofore anonymous backup, arguably the most crucial man to sustaining their Super Bowl hopes. Clark has never started as an offensive lineman before, although he did start six games in 2011 as a third tight end when the Broncos abandoned all pretense of a balanced offense while Tim Tebow was their starting quarterback.
"When I'm playing tight end I view it as being the open inside tackle -- that's the way I viewed it," Clark said. "That helps, getting games under your belt and getting prepared for that as well. That will definitely help me."
But what is more valuable to Clark's chances is his work this spring and summer, when he worked as the first-team left tackle throughout organized team activities, minicamp, training camp and the preseason. Clady's absence because of rotator-cuff surgery necessitated that promotion, and Clark tried to maximize it by becoming familiar with Manning's checks and calls.
"That definitely helped a lot," Clark said. "You get a chance to learn different things, snap counts, different things like that, and learn his rhythm. Sometimes you can jump the ball before it comes out of his mouth because we know his rhythm."
That experience makes him the best option for the job, and with injuries to Clady and J.D. Walton, the Broncos now have the first-team offensive line that they used for most of their practices prior to the regular season.
The Broncos signed former Eagles and Colts tackle Winston Justice to fill the roster spot opened by Clady's injury, but he is likely no more than an insurance policy in the event of further injuries to the tackles. All of Justice's starting experience as a pro is at right tackle, and if something happens to Clark, the Broncos are more likely to move starting right tackle Orlando Franklin to the left side, leaving Justice to work on the right side.
Another contingency plan could involve moving left guard Zane Beadles to left tackle; he briefly worked at tackle during training camp. But that would only work if Chris Kuper has sufficiently healed from offseason ankle surgery to fill in for Beadles at left guard; Kuper is on the 53-man roster, but has been inactive so far this season and has been limited in practice the last two weeks.
"But with our mentality of 'next man up,' I think the best part about this team is having depth," said wide receiver Eric Decker. "I think we do have a lot of guys that can fill a position. Chris Clark is one guy that is going to step up.'
SERIES HISTORY: 106th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 59-44-2. Denver has won three straight in the series. The most historic meeting between the two teams was in the 1977 AFC Championship, when the Broncos defeated the Raiders 20-17 to qualify for their first of six Super Bowl appearances while denying Oakland a chance at back-to-back world titles.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - NOTES, QUOTES
--A player like Winston Justice was about the best the Broncos could have hoped to find among the available options for an experienced backup right tackle, and the Broncos wasted no time signing him Wednesday, announcing his acquisition in the same press release as the one that formally confirmed Ryan Clady's move to injured reserve.
Justice's reputation was dogged by allowing six sacks to then-Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora in his first NFL start in 2007. But by 2009 and 2010, Justice had developed into a solid starter with the Eagles. He earned a contract extension and was poised to be their long-term starter at right tackle before knee problems began flaring up late in 2010, necessitating surgery the following offseason that effectively scuttled his 2011 campaign. A year later, Justice was with the Colts and started 12 games, but again struggled with knee problems.
If Justice's knee holds up, the Broncos might have a bargain. But even if it doesn't, he provides experienced depth at right tackle -- something the Broncos did not possess once Chris Clark was promoted to the starting lineup after Clady's season ended.
The Broncos didn't have any logical options on the practice squad. The team carries two offensive tackles on that eight-man roster: Paul Cornick and rookie Vinston Painter. Both struggled in the preseason, but the Broncos wanted to retain both -- particularly Painter, a sixth-round pick who was one of the best in the Scouting Combine's drills, but started just one season at Virginia Tech and needs refinement.
--Eric Decker was ineffective against the Ravens in Week 1; he had as many drops (two) as receptions. Given the proficiency of Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and emerging tight end Julius Thomas, it would be easy for Decker to be marginalized; even though he led the Broncos in touchdowns last year, he lacks the physical ability of Demaryius Thomas and isn't as effective in the slot as Welker.
But Peyton Manning vowed he'd get the football to Decker against the Giants, and he made good on that promise, throwing his first pass of the game to Decker and continuing to feed him throughout the 41-23 win. Decker was targeted 13 times -- four more than any other Bronco -- and led Denver in receptions and yardage, catching nine passes for 87 yards. Decker also delivered downfield blocks on both of Knowshon Moreno's touchdown runs.
"From my standpoint, it's being a reliable receiver," Decker said. "You want to be dependable and the only way to do that is be consistent. I think trying to show that to, not just the quarterback, but to the entire team. And just have that relationship with the quarterback that he knows he can trust you and that you're going to make the next play."
The season-ending injury to Clady could also affect Decker's role in the coming weeks. If the Broncos opt to use more two-tight end formations to help Clark adjust to starting at left tackle, then Decker will see more snaps than Wes Welker, who lines up in the slot, and by default he could be targeted as often as he was last year, when the Broncos leaned heavily on two-tight end sets with Decker and Demaryius Thomas stretching the field on the flanks.
BY THE NUMBERS: 13 - Length of the Broncos' current regular-season winning streak. A win Monday will match a franchise record.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I tend to go out there before the game and ask the ref, 'Are you going to let us play today?' You tend to get a feel on how he answers the question ... (Sunday) he laughed and said, 'We'll see.' And then he went out there and made eight calls. But you've just got to keep fighting.'" -- CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, on how he adjusts to referees calling a game strictly or offering some leeway.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--OT Chris Clark signed a two-year contract extension on Monday. He has been a backup for the team since 2011, but is expected to make his first start at left tackle Monday against Oakland.
--QB Peyton Manning has posted a passer rating of at least 90.0 for 15 consecutive regular-season games. If he surpasses that mark Monday, he will break his own league record.
--KR/PR Trindon Holliday earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors after returning a punt 81 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown that effectively sealed the Broncos' 41-23 win over the Giants.
--CB Chris Harris has intercepted passes in two consecutive games. If he gets one Monday, he'll become the first Bronco with interceptions in three consecutive games since Champ Bailey in 2006.
--WR Andre Caldwell has made the most of limited work. He's averaged 32.0 yards on his two receptions this year, one of which went for a 28-yard touchdown, and successfully screened out a pair of Giants to help spring Trindon Holliday for his 81-yard punt-return touchdown on Sept. 15.
--S Duke Ihenacho left the win over the Giants with a right ankle injury, but tweeted Monday that he would return to play against the Raiders on Sept. 23.
--CB Champ Bailey hopes to play Monday after missing the first two regular-season games and the last two preseason games because of a sprained foot. Bailey has been working out with a team trainer during practice.
--TE Joel Dreessen has had a slower-than-hoped recovery from knee surgery last month, and his status remains up in the air for Monday. He hasn't played a snap in a preseason or regular-season game this year.
--LB Wesley Woodyard played 90 percent of the snaps against the Giants in spite of injuring his ankle in the fourth quarter of the Week 1 win over Baltimore 10 days earlier, and is expected to have no issues going forward. Against the Giants, he finished second on the team with seven tackles.
--RB C.J. Anderson has returned to practice on a limited basis after missing five weeks of work with a sprained medial collateral ligament, but is unlikely to be activated for any games unless one of the top three running backs succumbs to injury.
GAME PLAN: Without Ryan Clady for the rest of the season, the Broncos will have to change how they protect Peyton Manning, and the Raiders' surprisingly potent pass rush offers an early barometer to measure Denver's ability to keep the 16-year veteran upright. Oakland leads the league in sacks through two games, which could compel the Broncos to abandon their preferred three-wide receiver sets in favor of two-tight end formations like they used often last year. Denver had some success in two-tight end formations in the second half last week, but they were able to send one or both tight ends out on pass routes when Manning dropped back to pass; against the Raiders, they might have to keep at least one back in to block and help Chris Clark, who will replace Clady at left tackle.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Broncos DTs Kevin Vickerson and Terrance Knighton vs. Raiders Gs Mike Brisiel and Lucas Nix and C Stefen Wisniewski. The Raiders' interior offensive line has helped produce the league's No. 1 rushing game through two weeks; Oakland leads in rushing yardage (397) and yardage per carry (5.9). The Broncos have allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league and rank second in yardage-per-carry against, thanks mainly to the ability of its defensive linemen to win one-on-one matchups and defuse run plays before the ballcarrier can react. Vickerson and Knighton were particularly effective against the Giants last week; after allowing 10 yards on the Giants' first two rushing plays, the Broncos held them to 13 yards on their last 17 carries, making them one-dimensional.
Broncos WRs Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker vs. Raiders CBs Tracy Porter, D.J. Hayden and Mike Jenkins. Porter spent an unhappy 2012 season with the Broncos, and can offer insight on Thomas and Welker from going against both receivers on a daily basis during the offseason and training camp, but Hayden faces the stiffest challenge of his brief career in facing Welker. The Raiders were able to contain Indianapolis' targets in Week 1, but Welker in the slot could make the Broncos' receivers more than Oakland can handle.