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How will the Broncos’ offensive line hold up against the Bears’ pass rush?

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The Broncos’ offensive line faces an early test.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos
Can Bolles come on after a weak opening game?
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If you read GIF Horse yesterday, you’ll know how critical the Broncos offensive line is to their success this week. Khalil Mack gets all of the media attention, but Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Goldman, and now Roy Robertson-Harris give the Bears the most talented defensive fronts in the entire league.

Robertson-Harris gave Green Bay fits when they tried to pass.

Luckily, the Broncos should have better interior play than the Packers did. Dalton Risner looked like a budding stud at left guard against Oakland. If he can keep performing at that level Sunday it will go a long way towards ensuring Denver can move the ball.

At the other guard spot, Leary had his moments in his return to action after the torn Achilles last October. He brought a veteran presence and the ability to anchor in pass protection, which gave Flacco time to scan the field. His ability to play in space looked like a work in progress, however. That will bear monitoring this Sunday.

Between the guards, Conner McGovern looked quiet, which is a very good thing considering all of the questions out of camp about his ability to snap. His athleticism and ability to get out at the second level will be absolutely critical against the Bears’ talented linebacker duo.

The same can’t be said about the two tackles who finished in Oakland, who mixed good with bad.

It’s fair to grade Elijah Wilkinson on a bit of a curve as he came in relief of Ja’Wuan James early in the contest. James had a couple of nice snaps mixed after Noah Fant’s opening run.

Garett Bolles doesn’t have that same excuse. In all fairness to the Broncos’ 2017 first rounder, he didn’t allow a sack and only got flagged for one penalty Monday night. Look beyond the stats though, and he still had issues with Clelin Ferrell as well as blitz pickup in pass protection.

Far too often Bolles is still catching the rusher late. His hands are too low and he’s giving the rusher a chance to either get into his chest or bat them down to slip by him. It’s remarkable when you stop and realize this is his third season.

Bolles still showed a lot of the same technical issues he’s always had against Oakland.

Let’s go into gory detail about how and where Bolles failed on the three passing plays above.

In the first play the Raiders look to be only rushing four with four down lineman - both defensive ends out wide. Both tackles need to get deep quickly while maintaining their body position relative to rusher.

In the first still after the snap (above), notice the difference in Ju’Waun James’ pass set and Bolles’ set. Bolles feet and shoulders are almost perpendicular to the LOS. James has his shoulders mostly parallel, which allows his to still counter an inside move by the DE AND stop the speed rush around the edge. James is also deeper into the backfield which allows him to cut off the angle of the DE. Both OT’s have their hands in the ready position to punch/hand-fight.

At this point in the first play Bolles is already beaten as the DE, #99, has a clear line to the QB. To compound his error instead of punching with his left, Bolles engages with his right hand first which is ineffective, because the defender defeats his right-punch with a chop. Given his body position, Bolles really could not even use his left to punch without losing his balance.

In the second play (above), the Raiders have seven players on the LOS all showing blitz. With no in-line TE, all five offensive lineman have to be aware of two potential rushers. This forces the offensive tackles into a bind. They cannot drop deep into their pass sets like they could in the first play because of the potential for the DTs to have a straight shot at the QB if both LBs A-gap blitz. The DB, #35, in this play is the responsibility of the QB since the RB is on the opposite side of the formation. Both Joe Flacco and Noah Fant have to know that if 35 blitzes there is an easy 8 yard completion to Fant on the hot-read.

Both LBs drop into coverage as does #35, but the Raiders also bring a DB who was off-screen in the initial shot. Again, instead of dropping deep into the backfield while maintaining his shoulder position, Bolles turns his body and “opens the gate”. Not only that, but he allows the defender, #99, to engage and get a hand into his chest. In this shot above Bolles should be moving his right arm/hand to chop down on the defenders arm. He isn’t and he doesn’t.

So while Bolles has his arms ready to punch in the shot above, he never really does so. He ends up “catching” the defender instead of punching him.

Bolles’ left arm ends up around the neck of the defender and he gets called for holding, mainly because he is way off balance at this point and his no other way to impede the progress of the DE to the QB. Notice how well the other pass blockers are doing.

In this third play, the Raiders again have seven that could blitz with four of them on the offensive left which is the weak side.

The Raiders end up only rushing four, but two of them, #50 and #24, are over Bolles which forces him to choose which defender to block. In theory McGovern could take #73 and bump Dalton Risner to the blitzing LB which would allow Bolles to take #24. This might been what Bolles was expecting because he chooses to try and block #24. Leaving the inside rusher, #50, free.

Bolles has his left arm/hand way outside his frame in this shot above. I’m not sure what he is trying to accomplish with that, but he should be able to knock #24, who he outweighs by 100 lbs, way off his line.

Not only does Bolles not do anything with his left hand, the punch he delivers with right is so feckless that it fails to reroute #24. So at this point above, both #50 and #24 have a clear line to the QB since Risner is unable to disengage with #73 in order to pick up #50.

Bolles was also a liability in the run game. More than once I found myself asking “what are you doing?” as Bolles let his man free to make the play. On a few other occasions the left tackle blocked air and watched the action unfold around him.

Bolles swapped between passive and uncertain as a run blocker last Monday.

Things will only get more difficult this week. The run game, play action, and rollouts may be the best way for the Broncos to try and gameplan around Bolles as much as possible. On pure passing downs Pagano will most certainly attack the left side, which will put pressure on Risner to hide Bolles.

With James out for an indefinite length of time the health of the line is scary thin. Austin Schlottmann and Corey Levin are interior depth, so if an injury strikes Wilkinson or Bolles the plan looks like Dalton Risner would kick out to tackle to man the right side. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that as it would weaken two positions, rather than one.

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