ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Denver offensive line coach Dave Magazu came in from the cold, took the hand warmers out of his gloves and settled into his chair to talk about his guys.
“We’ve been getting killed,” he said.
On the airwaves. On Twitter. In the court of public opinion.
But not really on the football field.
Sure, somebody has to take the blame for Peyton Manning’s gimpy right ankle and his recent rash of fumbles, and the O-linemen have bull’s-eyes squarely on their chests.
Truth be told, though, Manning’s patchwork line has held up pretty well, anchored by prized free agent acquisition Louis Vasquez, the massive right guard who’s given Manning ample space to step into all those throws as he’s amassed 3,572 yards passing and 34 touchdowns to go with just six interceptions.
“Lou is so big, strong and powerful,” Magazu said. “And he plays with balance and he’s smart, tough. He’s a complete guy.”
With four linemen coming off surgeries last offseason, free agency was barely 20 minutes old when Vasquez put his signature on a four-year, $23.5 million deal in Denver.
He’s been just the anchor they envisioned when they snatched him away from San Diego.
“He really has been the rock,” Magazu said. “He fits into the room really well. I thank God every day that we have him.”
You can bet Manning does, too.
Manning has been sacked just 13 times this season, the second fewest of any quarterback who has started all his team’s games. Only Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, with 12 sacks, has been dropped fewer times.
If the Broncos (9-1) keep scoring at this pace — 39.8 points — they’ll break New England’s 2007 record of 589 points, when Tom Brady set the standard with 50 touchdown throws. Manning is on track to throw 54.
All of this despite losing left tackle Ryan Clady to a season-ending foot injury in Week 2, after which he underwent surgery and joined last year’s starting center, Dan Koppen (knee) on I.R.
There are only two members of Denver’s O-line who are starting at the same position as last year: left guard Zane Beadles and right tackle Orlando Franklin. Manny Ramirez slid over from right guard to center, where he had never started an NFL game.
Chris Clark replaced Clady and, like Ramirez, has generally held up well, although Manning was sacked and stripped in three straight games from the blindside before a sackless performance against the Kansas City Chiefs, who came into Denver last week with a league-leading 36 sacks and left with that same number.
“You’re going to miss Ryan Clady, I mean he’s a hell of a football player,” Magazu said. “But everybody in our room felt good about Chris stepping up. There were times I’m hearing all kinds of grief about Manny can’t do this, Manny can’t do that. Well, I think Manny’s proven all those people wrong. And I think Chris is doing the same thing. And Orlando keeps working hard. And Zane keeps improving every game and having Louis has been a blessing.”
The Broncos have shown a great ability to roll with the punches, but they’re running out of bodies. Of the four backup linemen on the roster, only Steve Vallos is relatively healthy.
Winston Justice has a cast on his left hand. Chris Kuper’s career has been sidetracked by surgeries that have left a jigsaw scar on his left ankle and a perpetual limp after games and J.D. Walton is still working his way into form following a second ankle surgery.
“Well, what are you going to do?” Magazu said. “Quit?”
Well, in John Moffitt’s case, yes.
He decided not to return from the team’s bye week earlier this month, staying back home in Seattle because he’d lost his love for the game and preferred his health to a healthy paycheck.
“We weren’t mad because everyone has their own reasons for why they do things, but it did put us in a little bit of a bind,” Vasquez said.
Manning took some hard hits recently that left him with a sprained right ankle and sent social media abuzz about how his offensive line might be the weak link that could derail the Broncos’ Super Bowl hopes.
Vasquez said that’s the nature of the job. Do it right 45 times, no one notices. Slip up once and you’re a bum.
“Nothing’s pretty about the trenches,” he said. “It’s the dirty work that nobody wants to do. And we’re the ones doing it. We don’t expect any praise or glory. We’re just out there playing for each other, keep protecting our guys in the backfield and we corral around each other on the line. And that’s helped us handle adversity.”
BY ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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