Penalties a red flag in first test for Denver's revamped offensive line

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A rush to judgment is as much a part of preseason football as not playing the starters all that much.

And the jury is certainly out on the Denver Broncos' retooling of the offensive line -- at least until some regular-season games have actually taken place. But until rookie running back De'Angelo Henderson ripped through the Chicago Bears defense for a 41-yard touchdown run with 1 minute, 49 seconds remaining in Thursday night's game, the Broncos' play up front had been spotty at best.

It had to be slightly disappointing for coach Vance Joseph, who only two days before had called the offensive line the most improved position group on the team. It is indeed just one preseason game, a sample size that is often misleading, but in a penalty-marred 24-17 victory -- 10 penalties were enforced of the 14 that were called against the Broncos -- the team's offensive line was the biggest offender.

Five different offensive linemen were flagged at least once, and Joseph repeatedly said following the game that those struggles impacted most everything the Broncos had hoped to get done.

"The penalties kind of killed us offensively," Joseph said. "It's hard to say who played well because of the penalties."

Aside from center Matt Paradis, who did not play because the Broncos are being cautious with him as he returns from offseason surgery on both hips, the Broncos opened with the line that has started for much of training camp.

But quarterback Trevor Siemian was sacked on Denver's first offensive snap, and until Henderson found some seams against the Chicago reserves in the fourth quarter, the Broncos struggled to run the ball. They did not have a rushing attempt by a running back longer than 6 yards in the first three quarters.

The Denver starters had three penalties on the opening possession -- two on offensive linemen (Menelik Watson and Max Garcia). It was all a bit of a flashback to last season when Denver's struggles up front were a season-long issue.

And those difficulties haven't been lost on the new arrivals.

"Everybody knows what has been said about them the last couple years," said guard Ron Leary in the days leading up to the Bears game. "[The offensive line] is not satisfied with it. I can see that every day. Everybody is just trying to come out and focus on one thing to get better at."

Leary and Watson were Denver's priorities in free agency -- both are expected to start -- and the Broncos used their first-round pick on Garett Bolles, who is expected to be the left tackle this season. The Broncos also traded for veteran guard Allen Barbre as training camp opened, and he is competing for a guard spot that Garcia has held for much of camp.

If someone other than Garcia wins the guard job opposite Leary, Paradis will be the only holdover in the starting lineup from last season. The Broncos are poised for a big week in the decision-making process as they will practice Wednesday and Thursday against the San Francisco 49ers before playing the Niners in their second preseason game on Aug. 19 in Levi's Stadium.

The Aug. 26 game against the Green Bay Packers is expected to be the starters' most extensive work and their last preseason appearance. Few, if any, starters will play in the preseason finale Aug. 31 against the Arizona Cardinals.

The Broncos will want to make lineup decisions if they can this week so they can play the starters together, perhaps for a little more than a half, against the Packers. They'd also like to see some of the nastiness the offensive line has shown in practice, when blocking for the run game in particular.

Because the Broncos still believe their ability to lift themselves from the 9-7 finish in 2016 back into the playoff conversation will hinge on how they play up front.

"I think it's personnel-driven, along with coaching," is how Joseph has put it. "[Offensive line coach] Jeff Davidson is a hell of coach. He played in the league, so he gets the attitude part of playing offensive line in this league. He's coaching that. It's not false, it's real. It's a tough, nasty group."