ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady went to injured reserve last month, the team’s coaches went into their customary next-man-up mode. And they expressed their confidence that Chris Clark was up to the job at hand.
No, Clark isn’t Clady, but he doesn’t have to be and he has played to the Broncos' confidence thus far. Sunday, however, Clark will have a substantial test as Peyton Manning’s blindside protector. The Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware leads the league’s active players in most anything having to do with sacking the quarterback.
Ware has all the goods when it comes to getting to the quarterback. He makes the transition from speed to power or from power to speed with ease, which means he can get to the corner on a left tackle or close the deal off the power-first bull rush as well. He knows how to keep a lineman’s hands off of him and uses a variety of moves, including some quality work to the inside, that don’t allow an opposing tackle to cheat to the outside to take away the corner.
Ware is also better than most at breaking through the heavier formations on offense to get to the quarterback on those early-down throws. So much so he has 31.3 percent of his career sacks on first down.
Clark has benefited from Clady’s recent injury troubles in terms of being a backup who was treated like a starter for months. After Clady's offseason shoulder surgery, Clark spent all of the offseason workouts and minicamps, as well as most of training camp and the preseason, as the starting left tackle. So, he got plenty of work with Manning and dealt with the long list of audibles the team works through at the line of scrimmage. And when he entered the starting lineup after Clady’s season-ending foot injury, that work has shown in Clark’s steady play -- he's been penalized just once in two starts.
He had been far more comfortable as a pass-protector when he arrived to the Broncos before the 2011 season as a “futures’’ signee after two years on the Vikings practice squad. But Clark has worked to become more forceful in the run game, including the Broncos’ more liberal use of the zone-run looks this season.
Clark has fared better and while the Broncos’ biggest plays in the run game have come to the right, behind guard Louis Vasquez and tackle Orlando Franklin, they have run behind Clark plenty as well. They also have stuck their plan and used the three-wide receiver set plenty on offense and left Clark to the open side of the formation much of the time.
The Broncos know Ware is Job No. 1 up front and that Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and defensive end George Selvie have benefited from the gaps left behind when the protection is shifted to Ware, but Ware is the starting point. Ware has dealt with a back injury of late, but still leads the Cowboys in sacks, with four, while he has played 72 percent of Dallas' snaps on defense thus far.