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Defensive Shuffling Working for Denver

Posted Jan 9, 2014

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at the changes the defensive unit has had to make.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When training camp began, it would have taken a fanciful imagination to conceive of a starting defensive alignment in January like the one the Broncos now have.

Some of the changes have come via injuries. Others have been a result of players moving up and earning more playing time. But if the Broncos open in their base defensive package Sunday, they'll likely do so with just two players playing at the same spot that they handled during the heat of the early days of training camp.

And beyond the starting lineup, expected contributors like linebacker Stewart Bradley and safety Quinton Carter were both placed on injured reserve in the preseason. Injuries and shuffling were crucial factors in the Broncos' use of a league-leading 484 personnel groupings on defense this year.

Multi-week injuries to Carter, Bradley, linebacker Von Miller, safety Rahim Moore and defensive linemen Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe could have crushed the Broncos' defense. Their starters have combined to miss 28 games this season, a number that jumps to 44 when factoring in Bradley, who started in the preseason loss at Seattle when he hurt his wrist.

But these were just the beginning of the changes.

Some veterans have different roles now. Wesley Woodyard has been working primarily in nickel packages, with preseason pickup Paris Lenon working at middle linebacker in the base defense. Champ Bailey now works at the slot cornerback in nickel and dime packages after missing 11 of 14 games because of a sprained foot; that helps keep his repetitions in relative check. Quentin Jammer and Michael Huff, long-time NFL starters, have adjusted to being part of a rotation in the secondary.

Responsibilities change for various reasons, but the goal remains the same, which has kept Denver's defenders on point.

"It's tough but I'm still leading my guys out there on the field," Woodyard said Monday. "My teammates still look to me for guidance and leadership and that's something that's going to never go away. I'm going to still be the same Wesley Woodyard when I walk through these doors."

Woodyard has not started since the Week 13 win at Kansas City. Lenon was bumped up to the middle linebacker role in the base defense seven days later against Tennessee, and the two have platooned based on package.

Lenon brings "that experience and that wisdom and that physicality," Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said last week. But Woodyard still has the captain's "C" on his jersey. So does Bailey, whose role change was the result of a combination of factors, including his injury and the stellar performances of cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris Jr.

"It was definitely not how I scripted out in the preseason but injuries do that and it is what it is," Bailey said "I'm moving forward. I'm happy about the role I'm in now. I think I'm effective there so whatever helps us get over that hump and win this first game."

While Bailey's new role reduces his playing time, it also gives him more responsibilities before the snap in setting the defense and the potential for bigger plays on the inside once the ball is snapped.

"I think I'm more in the mix. I'm definitely mixing it up in the run and the pass," Bailey said. "There are a lot of benefits to being in there. Being outside you're always searching for the call, you're trying to make sure you're getting lined up right. There are a lot of challenges to being outside, but being inside I kind of get a feel for everything before it happens."

Bailey, like Huff and Jammer, is in a role he's never handled before. For some 30-something veterans, a reduced workload could lead to frustration that bubbles up and causes locker-room tension. That is not the case with the Broncos.

"We're fortunate that we have guys here that understand that winning the game is most important," said Del Rio. "Understanding what they need to get done for us on Sunday is what's most important. Sometimes you have to put personal ambitions aside and think more in terms of the team and less in terms of your individual self."

Added Woodyard: "We just continue to play for one another and that's a big thing. Whoever is on the field, we just try to play for one another and live through one another and that's pretty much all it boils down to."