ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The third starting offensive-line combination for the Broncos is the one that they hope is the charm.
The insertion of Will Montgomery at center and the domino moves of Manny Ramirez to right guard and Louis Vasquez to right tackle allowed the Broncos to get their most experienced line combination onto the field. But after a strong start against Oakland in Week 10, the unit -- and the offense as a whole -- struggled against St. Louis, allowing Peyton Manning to be hit five times, including twice for sacks, in a 22-7 loss.
Changing the line alignment twice in a month without significant injuries to consider is rare, and with the Broncos' intricate offense, might lead to questions about the difficulty of such an in-season transition.
"I don't know how super complex anything is. Maybe it's just getting on the same page more than anything and getting the calls down," said Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase. "We haven't really changed anything since the spring. Maybe it's just those guys getting used to playing together."
And in doing that, peaks and valleys are inevitable as a new quintet attempts to become a cohesive unit.
"Here's the thing: You don't just create chemistry in two weeks as an offensive line. It's going to be like that," said left guard Orlando Franklin. "Everything is not going to be there."
"It can be tough," added left tackle Ryan Clady. "I feel like we have a mature group, we're not a bunch of rookies. We'll definitely get the job done. Me and Orlando have communicated well on the field and definitely improved since the beginning of the season."
The heightened sense of urgency prevalent in the entire team after two losses in three games permeates the offensive line, as they try to generate that cohesion as fast as possible.
"There's a sense of urgency now since we're in the middle of the season," said Vasquez. "So I believe our chemistry has picked up a lot faster just because it's in season and we need to get back to our style of offense and that's scoring points and winning games. So it's coming along good and it's coming along a lot faster than I initially thought it would."
"I think we're fairly close," added Franklin.
But in the meantime, the unit was under siege from the St. Louis Rams last Sunday and from outside the walls of Dove Valley in the days that followed, becoming a flashpoint of public criticism.
The most barbed critique came from ESPN's Mark Schlereth, who called the Broncos' locker room his working home from 1995-2000 and described the unit as "horrendous," just one among a fusillade of statements.
"We know it's on us to play better. But at the same time, that's his job to sit in the media and critique what we did a couple days ago," said Franklin. "We do need to get better and we understand that, and we will get better for this team.
But it is the team where the focus of Franklin and the offensive line lies, not in the opinion of others.
"We're going to care what each one of us think and we're going to care what our coaches think and what people in this organization think. But the outside noise, we're not going to be really listening to that," he said. "If the Broncos went 16-0, there'd still be issues, right? People are still going to critique our play, our performance and stuff like that. It's the NFL. That's the life that we're living. That's the business that we're in."
Some, like Clady, acknowledged being aware of the comments, but not knowing the details. But others, like Montgomery, did not know until the subject was broached Thursday.
"I think the only motivation we need is ourselves, us five up front and the rest of the offensive line," said Ramirez. "We can't really worry about what other people say. They don't know what we're going through. There's a lot of stuff that's in place that nobody knows about. A lot of people don't understand how our offense is run. It's not easy."
And the offense and its points of emphasis can change from week to week. This week, that emphasis could be on
the ground, which would help the line find its footing.
The Broncos ran the football just 10 times last week -- via nine C.J. Anderson carries and a Peyton Manning kneeldown -- and the run-pass imbalance was more pronounced for the Broncos in St. Louis than for any other NFL team this year, with just 15 percent of the offensive snaps used for runs.
"Well, the first thing I can do is run the ball more, obviously," said Gase. "The last game was very telling in that aspect in giving them more of a chance, and allowing those guys to tee off a little bit instead of being on their heels so much."
And that might allow this reshuffled offensive line to find its footing and settle into its new routine.
"We've just got to make sure we stick together and continue to put our heads down and continue to grind and be able to with whatever we're given," said Ramirez. "I know certain things are being done and movements are being made on the line, but that can't be an excuse for us.
"We know we're good enough to be able to go out there with any lineup that we have because I feel like that's the type of depth we have on the O-line. We've just got to make it work."
THE HEALTH OF THE GROUP**
Clady said that the condition of his foot continues to improve, 14 months after he suffered a Lis franc injury that cost him 17 total games last year.
"This is the best my foot's felt since the beginning of the season, for sure," he said. "(That is) one bright spot for me, being so unhealthy from my surgery and (other) injuries and whatnot."
Vasquez was listed on the injury report earlier this season with a back problem, but says he's fine now.
"I'm good," he said. "I'm not sure what came out on the report or anything but I've been out there 100 percent go and getting ready for this game."