Last offseason the Broncos made a number of coaching staff changes, including firing offensive line coach Jeff Davidson who had presided over some of the more moribund offensive lines in the NFL during his tenure in Denver. This offseason looks likely to bring many changes to the coaching staff as well, but let’s hope that this year the guys directing the offensive line aren’t among them.
After firing Davidson the Broncos replaced him with two coaches, splitting responsibilities more or less along the lines of interior offensive line vs outside offensive line. Chris Strausser, then the assistant offensive line coach, was promoted to oversee the tackles on the outside. And Sean Kugler, the former head coach of UTEP, signed on to coach up the Broncos’ guards and centers.
The results of those moves have been rather impressive.
The Broncos’ offensive line has excelled in the run game this year. Rookie running back sensation Philip Lindsay zipped all over the field for 1,037 yards on 192 carries, resulting in an impressive 5.4 yards per carry average. Lindsay’s determination and skills played a big part in that, but so did the offensive line in front of him. With rare exceptions, the line consistently opened up holes for Lindsay, who then took full advantage. And his blockers were a big part of his league-leading yards gained before contact mark.
The line also improved markedly in pass protection this year under Strausser & Kugler, though that’s still its weaker aspect. The group has allowed 33 sacks on Case Keenum this year, which is pretty decent and puts them in a 6 way tie for 20th most sacks allowed in the NFL. It’s not so bad when Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Derek Carr, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, and Russell Wilson have all taken 45+ sacks in the 2018 campaign. And it’s also a considerable improvement over the Broncos’ 2017 mark of 52 sacks allowed.
Overall, the Broncos’ offensive line has grown from an average at best and unbalanced unit in 2017 to a clearly above average group in 2018. And that’s kind of remarkable when you consider that only 2 out of 5 offensive line starters from the Week 1 tilt against the Seahawks will be starting and in the same spot in this weekend’s season finale against the Chargers: Left Tackle Garett Bolles and Right Tackle Jared Veldheer. A 3rd starter from Week 1, Connor McGovern, will start at Center instead of his original post at right guard.
The rest have been waylaid by injuries. Original starting LG Ron Leary tore his achilles in the Week 6 loss to the Rams, and starting Center Matt Paradis broke his leg in the Week 9 loss to the Texans. That game also brought the loss of Max Garcia, who’d made four starts at guard in replacement of McGovern or Leary by that point, and had played pretty well. The tackles haven’t been immune to the injury bug either, with Jared Veldheer missing the entire 2nd quarter of the season after getting hurt in the Week 4 loss to the Chiefs.
That’s resulted in players like Billy Turner and Elijah Wilkinson receiving a lot of playing time this season, and their coaches have ensured they were up to the challenge. Turner, a former 3rd round pick for the Dolphins back in 2014 and largely considered a bust or at best a development project after being cut by both the Dolphins and Ravens, has done well in 10 starts this season. And Wilkinson, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2017, has made 6 starts as well.
To have an injury-riddled line step up and deliver above average results is no mean feat, especially in light of the Broncos’ longstanding struggle to get quality play out of this position group throughout this decade. So while I won’t regret seeing a number of Broncos coaches go this offseason, Kugler & Strausser are not among them. I’d much rather get to watch their line again in 2019 to see what they can do with these guys in a second year together.