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Blanket Coverage: Broncos’ O-line is a long way from its early uncertainty

This week, we slow the bus on Marcus Mariota, the worrying about Wes Welker and the Raiders’ rough defensive outing against Pittsburgh. But first, how the Broncos’ offensive line has quietly turned a corner after much upheaval.

This week’s Blanket Coverage will slow the bus on Marcus Mariota, the worrying about Wes Welker and the Raiders’ rough defensive outing against Pittsburgh, but we’re driving the bus on the Andrew Luck situation, the dirty Lamarcus Joyner hit and the impact of Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert. We’ll get into how the Patriots will deal without Dion Lewis, how the Colts carry on without Harry Anderson and how the Broncos will survive sans DeMarcus Ware. We’ll also get into the juicy matchups of Week 10, including the Cardinals–Seahawks showdown and a great one-on-one matchup in Oakland. But first, we’ll start with how the Broncos’ offensive line has quietly turned a corner after much upheaval.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Much has been made about the struggles of the Broncos to bridge the gap between coach Gary Kubiak’s offense and the style that is more comfortable to quarterback Peyton Manning. Certainly, that’s been a big issue that has evolved over the course of the season.

But that has overshadowed a group that has probably had to deal with even more upheaval and changes: the Broncos’ offensive line. And in case you missed it, the group has settled in after a rocky start and has given the Broncos’ offense a good foundation entering the second half of the season.

“It definitely has been a work in progress,” says left tackle Ryan Harris. “I think at times we’ve maintained a level of improvement. The more opportunities we get to play the game that we want to play [a balanced run-pass offense] the better we’ll become. I think you’ve seen that improve over the last few weeks.”

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The hits for the unit started in the off-season, when franchise left tackle Ryan Clady tore his ACL in May and was lost for the year. Center Gino Gradkowski was acquired from the Ravens in a trade but was released after losing his spot to former practice squad member Matt Paradis. Former Eagles Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis was brought in midway through the preseason to settle the left guard spot. Right tackle Chris Clark, who started 21 games the previous two seasons, was traded to the Texans in training camp. Clady’s replacement at left tackle, Ty Sambrailo, had to be placed on injured reserve, which meant Michael Schofield started his first NFL game on Oct. 4, and Harris (ailing knee) and veteran Tyler Polumbus have rotated at left tackle.

On top of all that, the line had to adjust to the ever-changing Broncos’ offense as Kubiak and Manning figured out what did and didn’t work.

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Needless to say, the Broncos’ offensive line had a rough start. Manning was sacked 12 times in the first five games, and the running game averaged 3.3 yards per carry (take out the 144 yards on 24 carries against Oakland in Week 5 and the average drops to 2.54).

In the past three games, Manning has been sacked once and the Broncos have averaged 4.3 yards per carry, even with their struggles last weekend in a loss to the Colts.

“They had a big challenge and they stepped up to it,” says running back C.J. Anderson. “Getting time together and reps was big. Offensive line is one of those places where you want that unity and brotherhood, ‘I want to know what the guy next to me is doing, I want to know how he plays.’ It affects us in the backfield with me and Ronnie [Hillman] with just how are they going to block this? What do they do best? That’s just something that we’ve all adapted to in our time together.”

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Sunday’s game against the Chiefs will be a good measuring stick for just how far the line of Harris/Polumbus, Mathis, Paradis, rock-steady veteran right guard Louis Vasquez and Schofield has come. Even though the Broncos emerged from the teams’ first meeting with a 31–24 victory in Week 2, Denver fell behind 14–0, Manning was sacked three times and hurried another 12, and the running game averaged 2.8 yards per carry.

The Chiefs still feature one of the league’s top front sevens with Dontari Poe, Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard on the defensive line and Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson leading the way at linebacker.

“The Chiefs’ front is probably one of the best in football,” Mathis said. “There’s not really a weak link up front for them. They were a great challenge for us in that second game, and it seems like they’ve progressed as well. It will definitely be a challenge for us.”

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Settle down:

Slow the Mariota train: I have been and continue to be a big fan of Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, and his play so far this season has been a pleasant surprise considering his surrounding talent. But to just look at some of his impressive stats (101.5 rating, 13 touchdowns against five interceptions) and fawn over him is just wrong. His biggest days (the season opener against the Bucs and last week against the Saints) have come against two terrible defenses. Over at Football Outsiders, which factors in opponents and league averages in every type of situation, Mariota is 21st in both DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) and DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), where he’s ahead of players like Cam Newton, Joe Flacco and Andrew Luck, but behind Blake Bortles, Jameis Winston and Josh McCown. It has been a good and promising season for Mariota so far, but don’t go nuts about it yet.

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Stop worrying for Welker: Wes Welker is a big boy who knows the risk of continuing his career with the Rams. If he wants to play and the Rams want to sign him, that’s their business and nobody else’s. Unless you’re in those meetings with Welker’s doctors and the Rams’ team doctors, you shouldn’t have an opinion on where he seeks employment.

Oakland’s defense isn’t that bad: The numbers were ghastly in the loss to the Steelers (597 yards allowed, 195 rushing yards allowed), but don’t write off the Raiders and that defense quite yet. That Steelers offense is darn good. In the opener against the Patriots without Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh put up 464 total yards and 134 rushing against a pretty disciplined defense. The Steelers have averaged 133.4 rushing yards per game. Chalk it up to being one of those games against an opponent that was ready to pop with Ben Roethlisberger in his second game back from injury. The Raiders’ defense is still good enough for them to stay in the playoff race.

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Go nuts:

Luck injury reflects poorly on Grigson: The play against the Broncos that sent Andrew Luck to the sidelines for the next two to six weeks was like a lot of plays: The quarterback couldn’t find anyone open, so he tucked the ball and ran. But to say that was just some unavoidable, freak injury misses the larger point: Luck has taken so many shots in the pocket and had to scramble so often because of a lack of talent around him over the past four seasons that the odds were strong that something like this was going to happen. And now, between the earlier rib/shoulder injuries and current abdominal injuries, you can’t tell me that’s just bad luck. The talent around him, both in terms of players that can beat man coverage and the offensive line, has not gotten better in Luck’s time with the Colts; it has gotten worse. That realm is the purview of general manager Ryan Grigson. When owner Jim Irsay sees his franchise quarterback sitting out again for the next month, he has to be looking side-eyed at Grigson.

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​​​Joyner’s hit on Bridgewater was dirty: While I appreciate the post-game comments by Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner about his hit on Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, which knocked the second-year player out on the field, I’m not buying it. Joyner launched himself at Bridgewater and delivered a purposeful blow to the head with his arm. Joyner should have been thrown out of the game. Everybody has momentary lapses, so I don’t think Joyner should be labeled a dirty player, but that play was unfortunate and he deserves to be punished. If Tom Brady or Peyton Manning was on the other end of that play, Joyner would have already been suspended.

Tyler Eifert is the difference in Cincinnati: If you’re looking for a reason why the Bengals’ offense is so much better this year, it’s not because quarterback Andy Dalton suddenly found his groove (though Dalton being allowed to do more pre-snap has helped). It’s because tight end Tyler Eifert is finally the type of middle-of-the-field target (and matchup nightmare) that the Bengals have sorely missed. Jermaine Gresham was a solid and athletic tight end, but he was nowhere near Eifert’s level. Eifert makes the Bengals so much more difficult to defend and helps give Dalton a lot of higher percentage throws.

Domino effect

Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 9 injuries? 

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​​​Colts DT Harry Anderson (ACL, injured reserve): An understated and huge injury. Give Colts GM Ryan Grigson for nailing this third-round pick: Anderson had been stellar this season and a big reason why the Colts’ run defense had improved. It’s going to be up to Billy Winn, Zach Kerr and T.Y. McGill to make up for this big loss.

Patriots RB Dion Lewis (ACL, injured reserve): New England had three players that were one-on-one matchup nightmares for defensive coordinators in TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Julian Edelman and Lewis. No one on the roster can adequately provide the type of “easy” yardage Lewis did, but it’s time for James White to earn his keep. Also expect to see Danny Amendola to be used to pick up some of the slack. His time had been cut with the return of Brandon LaFell.

Broncos OLB DeMarcus Ware (back, week to week): With Ware’s recent history of fading at the end of the season, this may turn out to be a good thing for the Broncos, and one they’ve been preparing for. Shane Ray is coming back from an MCL sprain, and Shaquil Barrett has played well when given the opportunity. Ware leads the Broncos with 6.5 sacks, but his short-term absence will likely be felt in the run game, where he is still top-notch and the younger players aren’t quite up to speed.

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Humanitarian of the Week

Jacob Tamme, TE, Falcons

Considering Veteran’s Day was Wednesday, this would seem to be a good time to put the spotlight on an NFL player who goes to great lengths to support the troops and their families. Through a collaboration with the USO, Falcons TE Jacob Tamme hosted 75 Atlanta-area active-duty soldiers and their families for a VIP movie experience on Oct. 26. In addition, 26 veterans also joined in the event.

Tamme and his wife, Allison, host a golf tournament, the Swings for Soliders Classic, each July at the University Club of Kentucky to benefit Homes For Our Troops. Their sixth installment brought the total raised to more than $500,000.

Ten thoughts heading into Week 10

1. The sight of the blue NY helmets will cause more than a few Patriots fans to conjure up bad memories from their recent Super Bowl past, but they shouldn’t fret. This Giants defense isn’t close to those championship units. New York has a difficult time rushing the passer and covering in the back end. That’s a bad combination against the Patriots.

2. That being said, it appears that the Patriots’ constant injury issues on the offensive line (after putting LT Nate Solder on injured reserve, G/C Ryan Wendell had joined him and now RT Sebastian Vollmer is hurting) have finally started to have an impact on Tom Brady. It’s all relative, but Brady appeared to speed up a little against Washington, and he was more inaccurate than normal. It could just be a one-time thing, and unless you can get pressure with four and make Brady hold the ball a little longer with man coverage (the Giants can’t), it may not matter. If opponents want to take advantage of the Patriots’ line, they have to make Brady hold the ball. Easier said than done.

3. The natives are restless in Green Bay, but expect the Packers’ offense to get healthy on Sunday against the Lions. Detroit is the 31st-ranked defense by Football Outsiders, and it is 30th against the pass. After losing to the Broncos and Panthers, the Packers’ offense will feel like it can breathe again.

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4. No question that Cardinals at Seahawks is the game of the week, with 6–2 Arizona trying to hold off 4–4 Seattle in the NFC West race. The Seahawks’ pass rush has come on, and it has to get Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer off his spot. That’s a big key in this game.

5. A big factor on the other side will be whether the Cardinals can keep Russell Wilson confined to the pocket behind that shaky offensive line. If Arizona can do that, it may be tough for the Seahawks to move the ball. We could be looking at a low-scoring game.

6. With the Cardinals and Seahawks facing off, the Rams have to keep pace with a victory at home against the Bears. Should be a great matchup between Bears WR Alshon Jeffrey, who has been nearly unstoppable when healthy, and Rams CB Janoris Jenkins, who has become a much more consistent player in his fourth season.

7. If the Cowboys can’t pull off a victory against the Buccaneers on Sunday, their season may indeed be over. The defense should stifle Jameis Winston and Bucs, and Cowboys should be able to score points against Tampa. Dallas has to rally this week.

8. If you’re a fan of great interior matchups, flip on the Vikings–Raiders game on Sunday and watch Oakland center Rodney Hudson go up against Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph. Both are playing at an extremely high level.​​

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9. Funny how quickly things can change in the NFL when you’re given a bigger sample size. Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell was the toast of the league as the Dolphins impressively went 2–0 in his first two games. Since then, Miami is 0–2 by a combined score of 69–24 in road losses to the Patriots and Bills. The Dolphins visit the Eagles on Sunday.

10. We’ll know fairly quickly if the Texans fixed anything on the defensive side of the ball during their bye week when they take on the Bengals. Houston has been a mess in the front end (blown gaps and not getting off blocks) and in the back end (coverage busts) to this point. The Texans can’t give the Bengals any easy points or they could get blown out.