It's hard to get to Peyton, sometimes just (against) air. —Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The left tackles who protected Peyton Manning's blindside over his first 13 years in Indianapolis will not be confused with the greats of the game.
Unheralded Tarik Glenn did make three Pro Bowl appearances over his 10 seasons. The players who followed Glenn — Tony Ugoh and Charlie Johnson — were better known not so much for winning Glenn's old job as for taking it by default.
So, when Manning was asked Thursday if he's even the least bit nervous about the prospect of his blindside being covered for the rest of this season by fifth-year journeyman Chris Clark instead of Ryan Clady — one of only four offensive linemen in history to start every game and make three Pro Bowls over his first five seasons — the Broncos quarterback barely waited for the question to finish.
"No. No," Manning said, the words barely audible, the query seemingly barely worth answering. "Chris will do a good job."
History says Manning needn't worry much.
He threw for a career-high 4,700 yards and was sacked only 16 times with Johnson protecting his blindside for most of 2010.
And though mobility has never been among his top 10 attributes, the Broncos quarterback has spent years serving as his own best protector because he knows where he wants to go with the ball before the snap.
"It's hard to get to Peyton, sometimes just (against) air," said Raiders coach Dennis Allen, who is trying to devise ways to slow Manning in their game Monday night.
So far this season, Manning has been sacked three times. Last year, he only got sacked 21, second-least in the league.
Manning's quick release aside, Clady, of course, has played a role in that. Early this season, he shored up a line that had a bad training camp, in part because of injuries that kept things in constant flux and had the Broncos in a revolving-door search for a center before they finally went with their top backup, Manny Ramirez.
Clady had missed the offseason while completing a difficult rehabilitation from surgery to repair his right shoulder. The Broncos, confident in a six-year veteran who played hurt last year, gave him a five-year deal worth up to $57.5 million. But at the end of last week's game against the Giants, Clady stepped down wrong at the end of a play. He separated ligaments and joints in the bottom of his foot and, three days later, was placed on injured reserve.
That, as much as the impact the injury would have on the field, was what Manning wanted to talk about Thursday.
"That's football as we know it," Manning said. "The fact that he was injured the entire offseason did allow for Chris Clark to get a great deal of repetition. That will pay dividends for Chris."
Indeed, it was Clark lining up at left tackle for much of training camp, which means he won't be coming in cold. Just like any cog in a Manning-led offense, Clark is expected to know his assignments and not miss a beat.
"It's not about filling a guy's shoes for me," Clark said. "It's about me creating my legacy — just helping the team the best way I can and doing my job."
One way to tell if he's succeeding will be to see whether Manning's jersey stays clean against the Raiders. More difficult to detect will be whether the Broncos suffer any loss if they have to provide help for their left tackle, after years of knowing Clady could hold his own in one-on-one situations against the opponent's best pass rusher.
Acquired off waivers in 2010, Clark has made six starts for the Broncos — all at tight end during the Tim Tebow era, when the Broncos were loading up on the line so they could run at all costs. Often, the referee would have to turn on the mike and announce, "No. 75 is reporting as an eligible receiver." That was Clark — a man who certainly doesn't want to hear his number called anymore.
"I think his teammates have a lot of confidence in him and we feel good about him," coach John Fox said.
Notes: Clady was an offensive captain and because his season-ending injury came so early in the year, the Broncos voted for a new captain and chose WR Wes Welker. "One of the greatest honors you can have on a football team," Welker said. ... CB Champ Bailey practiced Thursday for the first time since injuring his left foot in an exhibition game at Seattle on Aug. 17. "I feel good. I didn't set it back, let's say that. I'm on my way," Bailey said. ... S Duke Ihenacho said he was recovering well from an ankle injury and didn't expect a setback. Ihenacho took batting practice with the Colorado Rockies this week. "Definitely not as easy as it looks," he said.
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