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Defensive Shuffling

Posted Dec 11, 2013

Independent analyst Andrew Mason examines the shuffling that the Broncos have undertaken on defense this season.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A combination of injuries and shuffling has meant that the Broncos have used a league-high 414 different defensive combinations this year, a total that increased on Sunday when Sione Fua played 10 snaps, Paris Lenon started at middle linebacker and Omar Bolden played 41 snaps, three more than he'd played in the previous 12 games combined.

Fua's place in the rotation was for an obvious reason: injuries to Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe. It wasn't as evident for Lenon and Bolden; the players whose place they filled in the base defense -- Wesley Woodyard and Duke Ihenacho, respectively, were still active, although with a reduced workload.

Change will happen and can be a result of myriad reasons: lingering injury, a backup flourishing in practice and earning a shot, a desire to evaluate all possible options or a simple need for improvement for the defense. All of that appears to congeal regarding Woodyard, who missed nearly three full games in October to a neck injury.

“It wouldn’t be so much an injury, it’s just kind of getting strength back from what that injury was a while back -- just wear and tear and a little bit of strength but nothing big. It’s not all about that, that’s part of it," said Head Coach John Fox.

The wear and tear leads to another consideration: postseason preparedness. A playoff bid is clinched; the magic number to win the AFC West is two. 

“Well, it’s just a situation where we are doing what we need to do to get ourselves ready to play our best football down the stretch," said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio. "Part of that is getting different guys ready to play. Part of that is getting different guys rested and healed. And part of that is making sure that we utilize the talent that we have. 

"I think all year -- well, the last couple of years -- we’ve been a group that understands we do that. As guys play and play well, they play more. That is just how we do it."

The rest revolves around Lenon, a 12th-year veteran whose role has evolved. 

"A lot of it is that Paris Lenon has played a lot of football in the National Football League and in the situations we played him a week ago. We’ll see what we do this week. He’s earned that opportunity.”

He's also seven pounds bigger and seven inches taller than Woodyard, and with the interior of the defensive line dealing with the season-ending injury to Kevin Vickerson, the burden on the middle linebacker, especially against the run, has increased.

“He’s a physical guy," said Del Rio. "He’s learned our system, he’s been with us now -- had plenty of time to get comfortable with our system. We called on him to play a little bit more last week, he did a nice job for us.”

Lenon felt he was ready for his workload Sunday because he didn't slack in preparation for the weeks when he was limited to a bench role.

"I look at it like this: either I'm not smart enough to approach it any other way, or I'm smart enough that I approach it that way," he said. "I'm not quite sure what it is, but I know this: I have a single purpose, and I go in one direction. It's as simple as that."

For now, that direction appears to be to the playing field when the Broncos are in their base package. And he believes he'll do better with time.

"I've been away from it for a minute, so you get in a rhythm the more you're on the field and playing," Lenon said. "I think I did a pretty good job, but from what I was accustomed to, I wasn't in my rhythm last week, just because I hadn't been on the field that much."

Lenon said he found his rhythm in the second of his two consecutive October starts when Woodyard was injured. Once he does that, it's a matter of calling on his experience. 

Bolden doesn't have that luxury. He had never played safety until the end of the preseason, when he was shifted there from cornerback. He can still work outside, as he did late in the Week 5 win at Dallas, when injuries ransacked the defense, particularly the secondary.

"Omar has come a long way -- learning a new position, working throughout the year kind of developing into a guy that really can play anywhere in the back end," said Del Rio. 

Even if there weren't other concerns, the coaches can hardly be blamed for tinkering with some new combinations, no matter the reasoning. Denver's defense ranks 25th in total yardage per game, 20th in yardage per play and has given up a gain of at least 20 yards once every 13.1 snaps, the third-highest rate in the league. That continued last Sunday; the Titans had four such gains in 48 snaps -- once every 12.0 plays.

Reacting to struggles with shuffles is an immutable NFL reality that players understand.

"At the end of the day, we know this is a performance-based job," said defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "We get critiqued every week and sometimes coaches want to see different people in different spots. You really can’t get upset about it. You’ve just got to get better and keep working. It’s a long season. 

"So I don’t think too many guys get salty about it or too upset. They know what they have to do to earn it back."

And that's what Del Rio wants to see.

"As a coach, you appreciate that because you don’t want guys that are happy not to be doing more," he said. "You want guys that are striving to do more. That’s the good part. 

"And then we’re all about team. Whatever is best for the team, that is what we are from the top on down."

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