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Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Chris Clark stepped in left, made it right

By Jeff Legwold

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- OK, so the job description wasn’t all that great.

First, replace a Pro Bowl left tackle, the we-can't-lose guy the Denver Broncos signed to a five-year, $52.5 million deal last summer.

Then protect quarterback Peyton Manning’s blind side from a host of pass-rushers looking to get their hands on the future Hall of Famer and disrupt the Broncos’ high-scoring offense.

Do all of that for a team that has had Super Bowl aspirations since July.

And, oh, don’t screw up.

In a nutshell, that’s what Broncos left tackle Chris Clark had tossed into his lap this past September when Ryan Clady, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, went to injured reserve. When the guy the Broncos often built their pass-protection schemes around, since Clady could go solo so often against the league’s best rushers, went down, Clark was the one the Broncos turned to.

Chris Clark
Chris Clark (75) has the task of protecting quarterback Peyton Manning's blind side.
Clark had signed a two-year deal with the Broncos days before Clady moved to injured reserve. And suddenly a player who had started just six games in his previous three seasons with the Broncos was in one of the “foundation" positions. Broncos executive vice president of football operations John Elway, when asked what the foundation positions are, will routinely give quarterback, left tackle and edge-rusher as the top three.

“But I don’t really feel pressure, I try my hardest to apply the pressure," Clark said. “It’s about the job, it’s not about ‘Can he do it?’ or ‘Will I do it?’ Being a backup, I felt that my back was against the wall and I still feel the same way -- guys look at me and they lick their chops. It’s kind of what drives me to be successful."

There have been some bumps in the road for Clark to find himself in this spot. He was a Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft pick in 2008 and spent two years on the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad before the team waived him.

The Broncos claimed him off waivers a day later and Clark has worked his way into the Broncos’ plans since. They’ve always liked what he’s done in pass protection, his ability to work quickly in the team’s no-huddle look, even as the Broncos have worked out of a three-wide receiver set 73.6 percent of the time in their 18 games so far.

As a result, the five offensive linemen are left to handle whatever the defense sends at Manning with the remaining Broncos in the formation usually in the pass pattern. During the regular season, no quarterback with at least 320 pass attempts was sacked fewer times than Manning. He was not sacked in two playoff games.

Manning was sacked 18 times in the 16 regular-season games, including six games when he wasn’t sacked and five games when he was sacked just once. The Colts, with defensive player of the year candidate Robert Mathis working against Clark much of the time, had the most success with four sacks in Indianapolis' win on Oct. 20 at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Manning took several hard hits in the game, including a strip-sack that was forced by Mathis and another tackle from behind by Mathis when Manning re-aggravated an ankle injury that caused him to miss some practice time in the weeks that followed. Clark and the rest of the linemen were taking plenty of heat in the public domain at that point.

Or as offensive line coach Dave Magazu put it this week: “We were getting killed."

But the Broncos settled in during the weeks that followed, as did Clark. But given the Broncos spend so much time in an open formation on offense, it is no surprise their two edge protectors -- right tackle Orlando Franklin and Clark -- lead the offensive linemen in penalties. Franklin was flagged 11 times in the regular season, including one that was declined, while Clark was flagged seven times during the season, including four times over the past six games.

Still, with a 37-year-old quarterback coming off four neck surgeries, the Broncos would prefer their tackles take the occasional flag if it keeps Manning from taking an unnecessary hit.

“Chris Clark, who I think could be a starter for anybody else in this league, has been backing me and Clady up," Franklin said. “He stepped in for Clady in Week 3 and has definitely held his own."

In the Seahawks, the Broncos will see the most physical, active defensive front they’ve faced this season. Clark will likely find himself facing a combination of looks that put defensive end Chris Clemons, defensive end Cliff Avril or outside linebacker Bruce Irvin in front of him.

Clemons has been more of an early-down player, against some of the more power formations, while Avril and Irvin are two of the Seahawks’ go-to guys in the pass rush. Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said he makes no concession for Clark in the lineup at this point; what would be called with Clady in the game, against any defense, will be called with Clark, even in a Super Bowl.

“Chris has done a good job, we feel like at this point we can do what needs to be done," Gase said. "We run what's in the game plan and Chris, like the rest of the guys, have protected Peyton because they know that is job one."

“They rotate their guys a pretty good amount, so I watched film on all of them," Clark said. “... But this is an amazing feeling. As a kid, you dream of things like this and hope that this will come up one day. Now that it’s finally here, man, I’m definitely enjoying it. You have to be about your business also, but I’m definitely enjoying the moment, because I know it’s a short moment. [I’m] just going to take advantage of this opportunity.”