Donald Stephenson's injury will force Broncos to make adjustments on offensive line -- again

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- On Wednesday, the last day of summer, it looked very much as though the optimism Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak had during camp about a settled, consistent look for the offensive line would be left behind with the changing season.

Because while Kubiak had often expressed his excitement at the idea of working one group of starters together over the long haul of the season, the "streak" of starting the same lineup will almost certainly end at two games. Right tackle Donald Stephenson, the first free agent the Broncos signed this offseason and a most welcome addition to the front, is not expected to play Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals because of a calf injury. So in Week 3, the Broncos will make their first adjustment up front.

This was something that happened so often last season that offensive line became the Broncos' biggest offseason priority, even with an eventual opening at quarterback. And as a result of that attention, the Broncos now feel they have more choices than they did last season.

“We have a lot of options," Kubiak said. “I think with Donald out right now, I see us playing a lot of people. We could get into a rotation type of thing. Obviously Michael [Schofield] can play out there, Ty [Sambrailo] can play out there and even [Darrion] Weems can really play out there. We’ll have our seven and probably play them all.’’

By the time the Broncos made it through Week 3 of 2015, they had already lost two left tackles for the season -- Ryan Clady was injured in the offseason workouts while Sambrailo was injured in a victory over the Detroit Lions -- and were already juggling things in practice to account for other injuries.

Thus it became a well-publicized trouble spot for most of the season. And while as a group the Broncos offensive line might have had its best day in the biggest game of the 2015 season -- Super Bowl 50 -- it was still flagged as a high priority with Stephenson and Russell Okung signed in free agency to go with guard Connor McGovern in the team’s draft class.

In the first two games, Kubiak liked how things looked with Stephenson at right tackle, Schofield at right guard, Matt Paradis at center, Max Garcia at left guard and Okung at left tackle. The Broncos pounded out 148 and 134 rushing yards, respectively, and Trevor Siemian, in his first season as a starting quarterback, has been sacked just three times over two games by defenses trying to rattle him.

In some ways, the thinking now is that with Paradis in the middle of things and Okung, who has been a Pro Bowl selection in his career, at left tackle, the Broncos will be able to make plenty of combinations work. Paradis is the only Broncos player on offense or defense who played every snap last season.

“Matt’s got it all under control," Kubiak said. "We’re playing against a lot of defensive looks -- nickel, dime -- because of our three-wide and four-wide [formations] ... so Matt’s able to get all that sorted out."

“He’s super-intelligent, firstly," Siemian said. “He’s running the show up there for us, and he’s an athletic guy, he’s strong ... he does a lot of things well."

This week, the Broncos will have to decide whether to make two position moves, or one, to cover for Stephenson's absence.

With Sambrailo having been cleared to return from an elbow injury he suffered in training camp, the Broncos could simply put him at right tackle and leave Schofield at right guard, where he has found a comfort level. That would be the most efficient way, and it would allow Schofield to remain at a position where the Broncos believe he could have a long future after Schofield’s struggles at right tackle last season.

Or the Broncos could move Schofield back out to right tackle, where he worked plenty during training camp, and move Weems to guard. The Broncos tried Weems, a tackle when he arrived with the team, at guard during camp and believed they might have discovered his more natural position.

“I think with the guys we have, we can adjust and keep doing the things we need to do,’’ Paradis said.

The Broncos know whatever choice is made they’ll have to get things squared away. The Bengals have a physical, active front in their 4-3 look, and they don’t have to blitz much because of that. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins in particular is a difficult matchup on the inside.

“Just his quickness off the ball and the power once he gets to you," Paradis said. “But they just stick with the four up front, they just line up and play ball, and they’re good at doing it."