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'We're family': With reserves pressed into duty, Broncos' offensive line steps up

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Just after Case Keenum spiked the ball with three seconds remaining in Sunday's game against the Chargers, Garett Bolles raised a celebratory fist in the air. Connor McGovern and Elijah Wilkinson were a bit more emphatic, pumping their fists and stomping with excitement.

But their job wasn't done yet. They had to block for two more snaps — one waived off after the Chargers called timeout — to allow Brandon McManus to kick the team to victory. Once McManus' kick sailed through, though, it was finally time for Denver's fifth offensive line combination of the season to celebrate.

"I think it gives us some confidence — the confidence that we needed," Wilkinson said Sunday. "It put us back on track. We're 1-0 this week, and we're going to try to be 1-0 next week."

Ahead of Week 11, the Broncos — who had already dealt with a season-ending injuries to Ron Leary and Max Garcia and a significant injury to Jared Veldheer — underwent their most major shift of the season up front. Billy Turner — who played tackle in Veldheer's absence — moved to left guard after Garcia suffered a torn ACL. McGovern made his first NFL start as a center, having spent the entire season at right guard until Matt Paradis broke his leg against the Texans. And Wilkinson, playing right guard, made his first NFL start, even though Head Coach Vance Joseph admitted that tackle is his best position.

Given the massive overhaul, it wouldn't have been surprising for the offensive line to struggle, especially facing a fearsome pass rush of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa.

Instead, the group turned in one of its best efforts of the season. Case Keenum wasn't sacked once — the first time that's happened this season — and the Broncos averaged 5.7 yards per carry.

"We trust each other — we're great," Bolles said Monday. "We've just got to continue to move forward. We're 1-0 this week and that's all that matters. But we have a great group dudes. Our room is special. We're always competing, from practice squad to starters, we're always rocking it and doing the things that we need to do to come out successfully."

The performance also garnered praise from those who benefitted from it most.

"Obviously, our offensive line, we've lost three of our interior starters and have two new starters inside — Billy and Eli — and we didn't give up one sack [against] two Pro-Bowl rushers," Keenum said Sunday. "That speaks to the coaching and the guys in that room, and that room has been good all year for us."

Keenum wasn't the only one to commend the group.

"I am proud of the offensive line, especially the interior," said running back Phillip Lindsay, who scored two touchdowns. "We had some major pieces go down within the offensive line, and [their replacements] stepped up. They were physical and they got on top of the linebackers and the defensive linemen, so I had lanes. I am proud of them."

Offensive linemen often don't get as much recognition as players in other position groups, but on Sunday, the linemen were rewarded with game balls for their effort.

"The offensive line [got a game ball], just for losing three interior starters and how they'd been coached," Joseph said Sunday. "That room has been so resilient for us."

Perhaps equally as impressive as the zero sacks allowed was the fact that the linemen weren't called for a single penalty, even in a game that included a hasty two-minute drill at the end. To Joseph, the penalty-free performance spoke volumes about Bolles, who is the only member of the offensive line to start every game at the same position and faced off against both Bosa and Ingram.

"I'll tell you what, after watching the game, I thought 'Bollesy' played one of his best games from a technique perspective," Joseph said. "To block [Ingram and Bosa] with no penalties is quite an accomplishment for him. But the entire line, no sacks all day with those rushers was impressive, and we have three new starters inside."

Though it was just one game, Denver's makeshift offensive line played like a group that had been playing together all season, not like one that had been put together in the days before the contest. Still, the key for a late-season playoff push will be stringing together performances that build on Sunday's strong showing.

"Billy did a phenomenal job of having presence [at guard] and helping out Connor," Bolles said. "Same as Elijah — he had help for Jared. That's just how we are. [The] three guys inside and two guys outside, we're family, and that's just how it's going to be."

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