It was a sight that should’ve excited and terrified Broncos fans at the same time. During team drills at Sunday’s training camp practice, one moment conjured up both emotions.
On the play, Denver’s defense lined up Von Miller and Bradley Chubb on the same side. Putting two of the NFL’s best pass rushers together creates all sorts of nightmares for the offense, as teams can’t possibly double team both. So seeing this type of creativity, which was lacking last year under Joe Woods but promised this season under Vic Fangio, was a huge step in the right direction.
At the same time, it also created a situation where Garett Bolles was staring down the barrel of trouble. With no tight end on the outside, Denver’s left tackle was forced to deal with the dynamic duo on his own, having to pick up the right rusher and then block him effectively; those are two things that the former first-round pick has struggled to do during his first two seasons in the NFL.
Not surprisingly, the defense won this battle. That’s the good news. Miller and Chubb blew up the play, got to quarterback Joe Flacco, and created what would’ve been at least a sack and perhaps a fumble. Here’s hoping there’s more of that to come in 2019.
But, there’s also the other side of the coin. That’s the bad news. On the play, Bolles got confused as to who to block, let his man go free and watched as Flacco got shoved in the back, which would’ve been a monster hit in live action.
After the play, Bolles was involved in an animated conversation with Dalton Risner about the protection scheme. While no one could hear exactly what was being said, let’s just say that the rookie left guard didn’t seem to be the one who was confused.
Granted, this is one play. And to be fair, Bolles was put in a very difficult situation. But it’s not as though he won’t face those this season. As good as Miller and Chubb are, the Broncos will go up against teams who boast equally adept pass rushers; so Bolles has to be up to the challenge.
During his first two seasons, he largely wasn’t. The left tackle’s struggles, both with penalties and sacks given up, have been well documented. So 2019 feels like a last chance; if Bolles can’t get it done this season, especially with the Broncos bringing in the game’s best offensive line coach to help him, it’s most likely never going to happen.
Before a change could be made, however, Denver would have to have a better option. It’s easy to scoff at Bolles’ play, but it’s only meaningful criticism if an alternative is put forth.
On Sunday, Rich Scangarello did just that. Asked who has stood out thus far during camp, the Broncos offensive coordinator singled out Bolles’ backup.
“I’ll say Elijah Wilkinson, the tackle that was here the day we got here,” the offensive coordinator said. “He’s a very athletic and a great scheme fit. I just like the way he works out here. I think (offensive line coach) Mike Munchak has done a great job honing out his skillset and really helping him develop. I think he is a good football player. I think he is a guy that we are very happy with up to this point.”
That’s either meant to motivate Bolles, which would feel like a last-ditch attempt at this point, or it’s actually true.
Wilkinson has been working his way toward the top of the Broncos depth chart by doing whatever has been asked, by whatever coaching staff has been in charge. Undrafted out of UMass, the offensive lineman played in nine games for the Broncos in 2017. Last year, he appeared in 12, while getting seven starts, mostly at right guard.
But his versatility has been his best attribute, as Wilkinson has played guard and tackle, on both sides of the line. Now, he’s on the left side, working behind Bolles at protecting the quarterback’s blindside.
If the Broncos truly are that impressed with Wilkinson, then the clock is ticking much faster on Bolles than anyone expected. As Vin Fangio said after practice, the key to Denver’s offense is the line giving Flacco time to throw.
“It’s the o-line’s job to build a nice fort for the quarterback to operate in,” explained the head coach. “So we’ll see how the fort building goes.”
If Bolles isn’t ready to be a cornerstone to that structure, then the Broncos need to move on. And reading between the lines on Sunday, they might be ready to do so sooner rather than later.