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The Broncos offensive line remains a work in progress

Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

When he was hired by the Broncos in January, the move was universally applauded. He’s a well-respected coach around the league, widely regarded as one of the best in the business.

As time went on, the praise kept coming. By the time training camp rolled around, he was seen as an “offensive line whisperer,” someone with a special knack for fixing things in the trenches.

There was no problem too big for him to handle. There was no project player too raw for him to develop.

Heck, he could find five guys at the nearest Walmart, coach them for a weekend and have a top-10 offensive line in the NFL. That’s how big the legend grew by the time Denver took the field in 2019.

To a large extent, the reputation was well-deserved. After all, Mike Munchak was a Hall of Fame guard during his 12-year career with the Houston Oilers, proof that he knows a little something about finding success in pro football. And for the past quarter century, he’s been among the best offensive line coaches in football, most recently doing great work with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

So the lofty expectations were warranted, given Munchak’s résumé. But there was also a bit of wishful thinking going on.

There was hope that the new o-line coach could get something out of Garett Bolles, the Broncos first-round pick in 2017. There was hope that Munchak could help Dalton Risner transition straight from college football to the NFL. And there was hope that the Hall of Famer would be able to pass along enough of his knowledge to make Connor McGovern, Ron Leary and Ja’Wuan James serviceable pros.

It’s still early in the process, but the early returns suggest those aspirations were perhaps a bit lofty. After three preseason games, it appears as though it might take a little longer for Munchak to make his mark on the Broncos offensive line than many expected.

The extent of Munchak’s monumental task was on full display last night when the Broncos took on the 49ers. Denver’s latest exhibition game showed that the team’s offensive line woes aren’t yet a thing of the past.

A holding penalty by Bolles, which drew a chorus of boos from a crowd tired of hearing his number called by the referee, was the obvious example. It negated a 45-yard completion from Joe Flacco to Emmanuel Sanders, which would’ve given the Broncos first-and-goal. Instead, Denver was forced to punt two plays later.

But that was far from the only problem in the trenches against San Francisco.

The Broncos second offensive possession of the game also was derailed by poor offensive line play. On second-and-six, Denver tried to run Royce Freeman to the left side, but they lost two yards when three blockers ran right past the 49er defender who eventually made the tackle. All of a sudden, it’s third-and-long, which ultimately resulted in a punt.

That was just one of many ugly runs by the Broncos offense. A look at the stats shows that outside of some jet sweeps and QB scrambles, Denver was largely unable to get anything going on the ground, especially when the first- and second-team players were in the game.

On the night, running back Phillip Lindsay managed just 14 yards on five carries. While anemic, that was far better than the zero yards on five carries posted by Freeman. All told, the Broncos top backs racked up 14 yards on 10 carries, which isn’t going to cut it for an offense predicated on establishing the run.

The ugliness up front continued throughout the game. Drew Lock was under constant pressure after replacing Flacco, eventually having to leave the game after hurting his thumb while trying to avoid a sack. More penalty flags flew as other offensive linemen did their best Bolles imitations. And Denver never could get anything going on the ground.

In the end, it added up to a night where the Broncos only managed to put a measly 15 points on the scoreboard. That’s a pitiful performance at home, even in a meaningless preseason game.

And it’s a troubling sign for the season ahead.

Flacco is an upgrade over Trevor Siemian and Case Keenum. Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton are a dynamic duo at wide receivers. Lindsay and Freeman have the makings of a solid thunder-and-lightning pairing in the backfield. And Noah Fant looks like a tight end who can stretch the field.

But none of that will matter if the Broncos can’t get things correct along their offensive line. Skill position players are great to have, but only if a team is stout enough in the trenches for those would-be stars to shine.

Denver’s o-line has been a mess for years, the result of poor draft choices, bad free-agent signings and letting good players walk for nothing in return. This year’s hodgepodge is no exception.

Bolles is one year away from being labeled a bust. Risner is a rookie. McGovern is making the transition from guard to center. Leary can’t stay healthy. And James underachieved in Miami before heading west.

That’s the hand that Munchak has been dealt. And because of his pedigree, there was an assumption in Broncos Country that the offensive line guru would somehow be able to make it work.

Based on what went down last night against the 49ers, however, that’s not going to be easy. Fixing Denver’s o-line is a tall order, even for the best coach in the business.

Mike Munchak isn’t a miracle worker. The Broncos latest preseason setback provided a harsh reminder of that fact.