Here’s something I didn’t think was possible a month ago: The Denver Broncos have – or will soon have – flexibility at linebacker.
The unit has looked downright terrible at times this season, notably in the Broncos’ losses to the Houston Texans and New England Patriots. The dismal performances even had me pining for the return of suspended linebacker D.J. Williams, a much-maligned player many thought Denver should have cut ties with before the season.
But after watching the Broncos’ last 90 minutes of football, something changed; there’s been a defensive renaissance – thanks in part to improved play at linebacker, and more specifically, Wesley Woodyard.
At 6-feet and 220 pounds, Woodyard is undersized for an NFL linebacker, but he compensates with instinct and quickness, two attributes often described by football pundits as “uncoachable” traits. Entering the season, those characteristics were typically limited to special teams where Woodyard has served as team captain since joining the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2008.
Woodyard has a knack for knowing where to be on the field, and that anticipation shined on Sunday night in the Broncos’ walloping of the New Orleans Saints. Woodyard’s field presence showed on his stat line: 13 tackles, interception, sack, forced fumble, tackle for loss, and two passes defensed.
Woodyard started seven games last season while Williams’ was injured, but this time around, No. 52 is not about to give up his role.
In training camp, the thinking might have been to merely let Woodyard keep Williams’ seat warm until his return, but not anymore. He’s made a convincing case to remain Denver’s weak side linebacker. It seems to be an easy decision for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to make, and it’s not just because of Woodyard’s impressive tackle-leading stats.
With Joe Mays now on injured reserve, the Broncos are noticeably thin at middle linebacker. Williams could likely soon share snaps with veteran Keith Brooking, a decent enough run stopper but a liability in pass coverage – which isn’t so much his fault as a product of being an aging human being. Rookie Steven Johnson is currently second on the depth chart, and he has zero tackles in his young NFL career. Compare that to weak side linebacker – a position now apparently controlled by University of Kentucky football products (and much to my chagrin) – with Woodyard and rookie Danny Trevathan, who continues to see more playing time.
Williams played strong side linebacker early in his Broncos career, but Pro Bowler Von Miller has a stranglehold on that position with Nate Irving as backup.
Another byproduct of Williams’ return is added flexibility for Del Rio.
Let’s assume the Broncos go with Miller, Williams, and Woodyard as the starting strong, middle, and weak side linebackers, respectively. Del Rio has the option of implementing more of a rotation with Brooking, Irving and Trevathan. Or if Brooking gets the starting nod over Williams, then he comes in later downs. Maybe the 4-3 base defense gets a wrinkle as the Broncos throw in some occasional 3-4 schemes, or maybe we see Trevathan play more in modified nickel situations just as Woodyard did in previous seasons.
Given Denver’s current trajectory it seems likely this team could once again see the middle-strong offenses that gave the defense fits in the opening weeks (Houston and New England). The return of Williams, bolstered by the ability to generate even more exotic looks in the box could serve the Broncos well if and when the high profile offenses come calling.