DENVER --The tenor of questions, social-media discussion and radio chatter this week was more pointed than at any point since Peyton Manning's arrival as Broncos quarterback in March 2012. And no group had to deal with more criticism than the reshuffled offensive line.
All five starters of the unit spoke to the media Thursday. It was unusual, but that reflected the week leading into the Broncos' Sunday afternoon clash with the Miami Dolphins (2:25 p.m. MST, coverage on CBS and the Broncos Radio Network).
Louis Vasquez will be tested at his new tackle spot against Cameron Wake, while DeMarcus Ware will face off with a rookie first-round pick.
No one expected the Broncos' explosive offense to score just seven points in a game, its fewest since Jan. 1, 2012, or to never run a play from inside the St. Louis Rams' 25-yard-line during last week's 22-7 loss.
All five talked, presenting a united front, emphasizing the need for patience in developing cohesion with a personnel grouping first put together in Week 10. But their teammates didn't want to put too much at their feet.
"At the end of the day, they (critics) go, 'Man, the O-line,' but at the end of the day, there's a hole somewhere," said running back C.J. Anderson. "They're not going to have everything perfect, not every time."
Perfection won't happen, but if this unit can locate chemistry, reduce the penalties and prevent pass rushers bursting through the A-gap, the unit should be good enough, and then the Broncos would be back to the title-worthy level they expect.
"Most definitely. There's no doubt at all," said Anderson. "We know we're a good football team, and we know what we can do, and we know that when we bring our A-plus game, every game, we'll give teams hell."
But that must start with a win against Miami. Here are the three keys to making that happen.
1. PROTECT PEYTON MANNING.
Few defenses get more consistent pressure than Miami's. The Dolphins rank sixth in the league in sack rate (one every 13.27 pass plays) and fourth in quarterback-hurry rate, based on ProFootballFocus.com's measurements (one every 2.93 pass plays).
The Dolphins have the across-the-line quality to use the same variety of tactics employed by the Rams last week, from straight-up, one-on-one edge rushes with Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon against Denver's offensive tackles to stunts and twists designed to steer the edge rushers inside.
How the Broncos protect Manning could depend on personnel, with tight ends Julius Thomas and Virgil Green both questionable with ankle and calf injuries, respectively.
But protecting Manning also involves finding balance and forcing Miami's pass rushers to think about more than attacking the quarterback.
"We want to get balance. We also want to be a team that can run the ball," said Anderson. "When you're running the ball efficiently, it just makes the game that much easier -- especially on (Peyton Manning). It's already dangerous if there's six or seven in the box. We can spring long runs. And then if you decide to bring that eighth man down there for whatever reason, you've got to deal with one of the best quarterbacks ever to play this game throwing over the top to the weapons that we have.
"When we make it that more balanced, it's attack everywhere. That's something we're emphasizing, and what we're trying to do this week."
- DISRUPT MIAMI'S OFFENSIVE RHYTHM.**
The Dolphins have struggled at generating explosive plays, but are proficient at piecing together long, drawn-out scoring possessions. Fourteen of the last 18 touchdown drives by the offense covered at least 61 yards, and during the Dolphins' 5-2 run, they have 11 touchdown drives of at least 72 yards, including eight of at least 80.
Miami's offensive line has a new combination of its own, caused by Branden Albert's season-ending knee injury in Detroit on Nov. 9. That forced rookie Ja'Wuan James to move to left tackle. This will be James' first start at left tackle, and between a noisy home crowd and the Broncos' front seven, the Broncos would like to force some timing penalties, put the Dolphins in some long-yardage down-and-distance situations and force Miami's offense out of its comfort zone.
3. ESTABLISH THE RUN.
After last week, this was going to be crucial regardless of any other outside factors. But with gusty winds and raw conditions expected at Sports Authority Field, generating offensive balance could be more crucial than at any previous point this season.
Anderson, the expected starter with Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball ruled out for the game, has 17 touches in each of the last two games. But 12 of them were on receptions, including a team-leading eight for 86 yards last week.
To Anderson, it will be crucial to find yards when holes aren't readily apparent.
"When they don't, you can still make something happen," he said. "We have to find that spot -- wherever that spot is, and be decisive, make that cut, and still make it happen."
And if the Broncos can run, that provides more time for Manning, opens up the play-action game for deep shots to receivers like Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker, and returns the offense to its expected overall production.