Through two games, the 2013 Denver Broncos have had very little reason for complaint on the offensive side of the football.
Peyton Manning and Co. have averaged 463 yards and an impressive 45 points per game over the first two weeks of the season, Manning has already passed for 769 yards and nine touchdowns with zero interceptions and has been especially productive after making halftime adjustments.
In short, the passing game of the Broncos has operated like a well-oiled machine.
Unfortunately, the proverbial wrench may have been thrown into that machine on Sunday, when star left tackle Ryan Clady suffered a Lisfranc injury in the arch of his left foot.
According to Mike Klis and Mike Chambers of The Denver Post, Clady is likely to miss significant time due to the injury and could even be sidelined for the remainder of the season.
Losing Manning's top pass-protector for the season could be a significant blow for a Broncos team that appears to be running in Super Bowl-or-bust mode.
What Clady's Injury Means for Denver
Keeping Manning upright is of vital importance for the Broncos' championship push this season. Clady, who was inked to a five-year, $52.5 million extension back in July, was expected to ensure this wouldn't be an issue for the Broncos.
Clady was certainly worthy of his high-dollar extension, and his presence was a major confidence-builder for Manning, offensive coordinator Adam Gase and head coach John Fox.
Just how good has Clady been over the years?
Since being drafted 12th overall in 2008, the former Boise State standout has started 85 consecutive games (including playoffs) and even managed to finish the 2012 season despite suffering a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
He has also made three Pro Bowl appearances sand was a first-team All-Pro in 2009 and 2012. Considering Clady plays in the same conference as highly regarded tackles Joe Thomas and Jake Long, this is quite an accomplishment.
Replacing Clady's effectiveness and dependability will be difficult, and his absence immediately turns an area of strength into an area of concern.
The Backup Plan
The Broncos have options for replacing Clady—including looking to the veteran free-agent market.
However, it currently appears that Denver is prepared to turn to reserve tackle Chris Clark to fill the void.
There is not a significant drop-off in size or physicality from Clady (6'6", 315 pounds) to Clark (6'5", 305), but the difference in experience is immediately apparent.
Clark, a Southern Mississippi product, has appeared in 42 games during his four years with the Broncos but has started only six.
Still, it appears that the Broncos are confident that Clark can be at least serviceable and gave him a reason to remain motivated in the form of his own contract extension.
According to his agent, Chad Speck, Clark was signed to a two-year extension on Monday.
Congratulations to Chris Clark! He agreed to a 2 year extension with the Broncos - will sign today.— Chad Speck (@a3Chad) September 16, 2013
If Clark can find a way to hold his own as the starting left tackle, the Broncos may find themselves with an enticing piece of trade bait during the offseason. If he cannot, Denver may consider tapping into the free-agent market, which still contains a few veterans like Jammal Brown and Jared Gaither.
Either way, the Broncos are likely to experience at least some decline at the left tackle position, which could lead to a decline in offensive production as the season unfolds.
Changes to the Offense?
The Broncos have not exactly leaned on the running game thus far in the 2013 season, as the team has run the football just 53 times, compared to 85 pass attempts by Manning.
Therefore, it would not appear that Clady's absence will be nearly as impacting in the ground game as it will be in pass protection.
With Clady on the sidelines, opposing defenses are sure to test Denver's left tackle position early and often with their top pass-rushers when Manning drops back into the pocket.
Gase and Fox essentially have two options when trying to game-plan around a weakened left tackle position. They can either rely more on the run, especially to the opposite side of the line, or place more focus on the short passing game in order to get the ball out of Manning's hand more quickly in order to neutralize the pass rush.
For the Broncos, the second option seems to make much more sense.
While Denver does possess a stable of capable running backs, including Knowshon Moreno and rookie Montee Ball, it is hard to justify taking the ball out of Manning's hands for any extended period of time.
Fortunately, Manning's ability to survey the field and locate mismatches before the snap lends itself perfectly to a short, rhythmic passing game, which it why is has been a staple of any Manning-led offense for years.
Manning's two new favorite weapons, wideout Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas, make excellent targets for short-to-intermediate throws.
Welker has established himself as one of the better slot receivers in recent memory. He is the perfect dump-off option for his new quarterback, with whom he has already connected for 12 receptions, 106 yards and three touchdowns.
Then there's Thomas. The 6'5", 250-pound former basketball player presents a large target for Manning in the middle of the field and is someone who can make plays after the catch. Thomas has already logged 11 catches for 157 yards and three scores of his own.
Changes may include fewer deep downfield throws, but realistically, the game plan for Denver is unlikely to change significantly until it becomes clear whether Clark is a liability as Clady's replacement.
If changes to have to be made, it appears that the Broncos have the right personnel on the roster to make them work.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, the loss of Clady does not eliminate the Broncos as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, especially if he is able to find a way to return for the postseason.
Denver is still a playoff team and will likely find a way to overcome the loss of even their best offensive lineman. However, the Broncos are certainly not as good without Clady, and his absence could become a real issue during the postseason if the team comes up against a strong pass rush. After all, Clady is an elite left tackle and elite players are difficult to replace at any position.
Expect the Broncos to take home the AFC West crown and make a serious postseason run this year. They just might not do it in as dominating a manner as they did in their first two victories of the regular season.