NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
Life without starting left tackle Ryan Clady began quietly for the Broncos when they began practicing for Monday night's game against the Oakland Raiders.
Backup left tackle Chris Clark assumed Clady's previous role, and the Broncos are moving forward as if nothing had happened, or that is the plan.
But without the recently re-signed All-Pro tackle, the Broncos may need to make a few changes to protect quarterback Peyton Manning against a Raiders team that, surprisingly, was No. 1 in the NFL with nine sacks after two games.
The Broncos could opt for more two-tight end formations than they used in the last two weeks, or could choose to continue emphasizing three-wide receiver sets, focusing more on short passes and screens to take the edge off an opposing pass rush.
Nevertheless, the Broncos are trying to remain confident -- starting with their defensive linemen, who face off against Clady on a daily basis in practice.
"I don't think they're going to miss a heartbeat, man. He's going to come in there and nothing's going to change," said defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "He's solid. He's been waiting his turn. He's been patiently waiting, practicing and doing everything right."
Clark was also the first-team tackle through much of the offseason while Clady sat out during his recovery from rotator-cuff surgery.
"Chris got a great deal of repetitions and he was here the entire year last year with this bunch. OTAs and training camps and meetings, he was the starter the entire time," said quarterback Peyton Manning. "I think that can help us."
This will be the first time Clady has missed a game in his career.
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. When he Broncos placed him on injured reserve Wednesday, it ended his season and confirmed 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 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
Denver's run defense is the league's second-stingiest on a per-carry basis this season, and has combined with a point-a-minute offense to make running against the Broncos an impossible task. Oakland's rushing offense is the league's most productive, and the Raiders have run on a higher percentage of their downs than anyone else.
But much of that is due to the ground threat Terrelle Pryor poses. Pryor leads all NFL quarterbacks with 162 rushing yards and 7.4 yards per carry so far this season, and is doing so with plays that may look familiar to long-time Broncos.
"They're doing some of the stuff that we did with (Tim) Tebow when he was here," said defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. "The offense is real similar in that way where they are running first and trying to keep our offense off the field. That's what teams are going to try to do."
Pryor and the Raiders begin a stretch of the schedule in which the Broncos will have to account for what quarterbacks can do on the run; over the next six games, Denver faces Pryor, Philadelphia's Michael Vick, Washington's Robert Griffin III and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, who doesn't run as frequently as the others but is effective when keeping the football for himself.
"We've been preparing for these teams since OTAs," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris. "It actually helped us out that we've been preparing so long for teams like this, because we knew we had a lot on our schedule. We have to stop the run. If we don't stop the run, it's going to be a long day."
A key to stopping the run will be discipline among the linebackers and defensive backs -- and avoiding the temptation to over pursue, which can lead to a big hit, but also a bad misplay and a long pickup.
"It's not really tempting. It just depends upon what your assignment is," said safety Duke Ihenacho. "We do a good job of just trying to kind of being disciplined on whatever we have to do. If we're in man-to-man coverage, we're going to stay on our man and wait until he crosses the line of scrimmage and then come get him. Other than that, it's not really hard."
--WR 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:"We know that he's going to extend plays, so we have to plaster, and by plastering, I mean find our man and don't lose him, even when you start scrambling, don't let your eyes get on the quarterback, but keep your eyes on your man." -- CB Chris Harris, on defending Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor.
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--OT Ryan Clady is on injured reserve and out for the season after suffering a tear at the Lisfranc joint in his left foot late in Sunday's win over the Giants. He is expected to have surgery.
--S Duke Ihenacho left the win over the Giants with a right ankle injury, and was upgraded to probable after getting in full practice Saturday.
--CB Champ Bailey practiced Thursday -- his first practice work since he sprained his foot during the second quarter of a preseason loss at Seattle on Aug. 17. Bailey worked on a limited basis again Saturday and is officially listed as questionable.
--TE Joel Dreessen practiced on a limited basis Saturday. It was his second practice since undergoing knee surgery last month. He hasn't played a snap in a preseason or regular-season game this year, and is listed as questionable.
--RB C.J. Anderson practiced in full pads Saturday. It was his second full-pad work since he sprained his medial collateral ligament on Aug. 15, and he is listed as probable. But he remains unlikely to play in a game unless the Broncos decide to shake up their three-man committee of Knowshon Moreno, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman.
--G Chris Kuper practiced all week and is probable. He had been limited in a gradual return to work after ankle surgery sidelined him in the offseason.
--C J.D. Walton is expected back no earlier than late October after being placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list. Walton fractured his ankle last year and had complications that resulted in further surgery in June.
--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.
--WR Wes Welker was named one of the Broncos' team captains Thursday. The Broncos had a vacant offensive captain's spot after Ryan Clady was placed on injured reserve. Peyton Manning, Champ Bailey, Wesley Woodyard and David Bruton are the other captains.
--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. He started six games at tight end in 2011.
--DL Malik Jackson led the Broncos with two hits of Eli Manning last week. Jackson has been rotating between the end and tackle spots the last two games, and has played 42.3 percent of the snaps so far this season.
--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 in that statistic.
--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.
GAME PLAN: Without LT 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.