When looking at the effectiveness of the Denver Broncos' offensive line this season, one must factor in Peyton Manning's otherworldly talents.
One of the best quarterbacks to ever play, Manning is just better at getting rid of the ball than most other passers, which makes it easier to protect him. But that doesn't mean his line can coast in its job of making sure he stays upright and healthy.
For much of the season, the Denver linemen have given Manning a clean pocket, and in turn he has thrown for more touchdowns and yards than any other quarterback in a single season. They've done it despite losing Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady to a foot injury in Week 2, and making do without valuable depth even before then. They allowed Manning to get sacked only 18 times in the regular season, and in November, Pro Football Focus ranked them second in its offensive line rankings.
"I think it's been an amazing year so far," said center Manny Ramirez, after the Broncos' 34-14 road win over the Oakland Raiders in the regular-season finale. "What we were able to accomplish with all the injuries, to be able to come together really says a lot."
Clady's left Lisfranc sprain, which he suffered after signing a five-year deal in the offseason, was the most high-profile loss, but there certainly were more. In June, center J.D. Walton had another surgery on the ankle he injured last season, and was released in December. Center Dan Koppen tore his ACL in July. Guard Chris Kuper has only started six total games the past two seasons after dislocating his ankle in 2011.
Those injuries are tough to stomach, but they provided opportunities for players like Ramirez. The seventh-year pro from Texas Tech, who previously played right guard, took over at center. He has put together a terrific season and earned an alternate spot in the Pro Bowl as a result.
Beside Ramirez in either direction are guards who can hold their own with interior defensive linemen. To his right, Louis Vasquez has played at an elite level. He was voted to the Pro Bowl, and even played at right tackle against Indianapolis when Orlando Franklin was nursing a sprained left knee and ankle. Zane Beadles isn't at Vasquez's level, but he's held down the starting left guard spot.
Though guarding Manning is their most important job, the group must also block for Denver's running backs. The Broncos won't scare anyone with their ground attack, but opening holes for Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball will be especially important in the postseason.
"We know we're only going to get a certain amount of carries every game, and our focus is to make sure those carries are efficient," Beadles said.
The running game -- and Denver's screen game -- benefits from the line's athleticism. The men up front can pull block effectively and take on defenders beyond the line of scrimmage.
"Where we make a lot of our hay is getting to the second level and blocking those guys," Vasquez said. "Those are the blocks that spring five-, six-yard runs and turn them into 20-, 30-, 40-plus [yards]."
At the flanks are two offensive tackles who must secure the edges of Manning's pocket. Franklin and Chris Clark have different backstories, but both have been adequate blockers. Franklin is a third-year pro who has started every game he's played, while Clark started just six games prior to this season and is only playing because of Clady's injury. Clark did allow a sack of Manning in his first game as a starter against Oakland in Week 3, and he also gave up a sack in the Week 17 win. Despite some occasional mistakes, the tackles have played well and blocked for long enough to let Manning make his reads and throw.
The line hasn't been able to keep Manning completely healthy, though. He sprained both ankles against the Jacksonville Jaguars in October, and those injuries lingered as a mini-controversy for part of the season.
There's also Manning's aforementioned ability to get rid of the ball fast, which has prevented him from hitting the turf more often. That's something his line doesn't overlook.
"We've got to make sure we're able to maintain our blocks for longer than what our average time of [Manning's] release is," Ramirez said.
Manning has made life easier for his teammates, but an 18-sack season is one to be proud of for a line that is not playing at full strength. After beginning the year with so much instability, Denver's offensive line has gone from a question mark to a dependable group.