Denver Broncos | News

Woodyard's Shift to Middle Part of Solution at Linebacker

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- At the moment, the Broncos have clarity in knowing who is available to play linebacker.

They know exactly how long Von Miller's suspension will last. They know they'll have to do without Stewart Bradley as he recuperates from this week's wrist surgery. They also know that to get the best players on the field at the proper moments, a few shifts are involved.

And that would have meant Wesley Woodyard would have moved from the weak side to the middle, no matter what happened with Bradley, who was injured in Seattle on Saturday night.

"That was going to be a move we made regardless," Head Coach John Fox said on Tuesday.

But it's not permanent for the course of the regular season, as Fox noted, adding that he wants to see if Woodyard "feels comfortable" in the middle. With Miller returning after a six-game suspension and Tuesday pickup Paris Lenon's role still to be determined, none of the chain-reaction of shifts -- including Danny Trevathan to first-team weakside linebacker and Nate Irving to first-team strongside work -- is necessarily for the long haul. But all are about learning what packages work best.

"We're looking for combinations. We've been moving guys around a lot," said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio, who mixed and matched safety pairings early in training camp to better discern what worked best for his unit.

What makes Woodyard's move to the middle logical is that he's handled the cerebral duties typically expected of a middle linebacker in terms of making pre-snap calls and adjustments. He wore the helmet with a radio receiver last year and is expected to do so again this year, in large part due to the expected heavy workload he'll bear, playing in the middle but also remaining in the game as one of two linebackers in the nickel package. He's held that nickel role the last two years and has flourished there.

"Wesley can play multiple spots. He's done that for us here," said Del Rio. "Wesley showed last year he's a good football player. (He) played a lot of snaps for us and (was) very productive for us. We're going to get the best combinations of people on the field when we can and put a plan together to utilize them to the best of their abilities and go from there."

But what also changes for Woodyard is the emphasis foes will place on containing him. With Miller beginning his suspension at the start of the regular season, Elvis Dumervil now in Baltimore and defensive lineman Derek Wolfe still recovering from a neck injury, Woodyard's 5.5 sacks last year are the most for anyone set to line up on defense until Wolfe and eventually Miller return. Woodyard also led the defense in tackles and tied for the team lead in interceptions, and knows that in the short run, teams will craft their game plans around curbing his big-play penchant.

"If more teams try to scheme around me, all I can do is do my job," Woodyard said. "Make the plays inside the scheme of the defense. If somebody is doubling on me, it means that somebody else is free to make a play."

That's where Trevathan and Irving must come into play. Irving made strong plays against the run in each of the last two preseason games from the strong side, including a forced fumble to set up Shaun Phillips' touchdown at San Francisco on Aug. 8. If Trevathan stays on the weak side, he'll be at the position that set Woodyard free to make so many crucial plays last year, and for the Broncos' front seven to flourish without Miller, he'll need to channel Woodyard's game-changing explosiveness and flourish.

Trevathan was set to play alongside Woodyard in the Broncos' nickel package and did so at times last year, so their partnership in the base defense isn't anything new; it's just Trevathan's workload and prominence that is about to rise.

"I'm happy whenever I get on the field. I'm just ready to go out there and make plays, as Wesley is," Trevathan said. "We're both (University of Kentucky) guys and we know what our motto is. Just fly to the ball and make plays."

Lenon is expected to be in the mix, but his role is to be determined.

"That's for (the coaches) to decide. Right now, I'm trying to learn this defense," he said. "I think I probably feel more comfortable inside, but we'll see."

Shaun Phillips could also factor into the outside-linebacker mix if the need arises. To date, most of his work to date has been with his hand in the dirt as a pass-rushing defensive end, where he will be part of the replacement plan for Miller, but he can play from a stand-up position, as he did in San Diego's 3-4 alignment as an outside linebacker.

Phillips doesn't care what he does, as long as he can help.

"It doesn't matter to me. Football is football," Phillips said. "Whether I'm standing up in the two-point or I've got my hand in the three-point, go hit the guy with the football."

For the Broncos' re-shuffled linebackers, that end goal remains the same -- even without Miller, who was among the game's elite at hitting the man with the ball.

"I don't know that one guy can take Von's place," said Fox. "I just know collectively as a football team we have to all pick it up."