Broncos shake up failing defense
The Sports Xchange
NFL Team Report - Denver Broncos - INSIDE SLANT
As the Peyton Manning-led offense has threatened one league record after another, the fortunes of the Broncos' defense have plummeted. A unit that ranked No. 2 in the league last year has fallen to 25th overall, and ranks above only three teams in passing yardage allowed per game.
So based on those numbers, it came as no surprise that the Broncos shook up their defense against the Titans. But the reduction in workload for middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho was nevertheless a bit shocking.
Woodyard played only 10 defensive snaps Sunday, with veteran Paris Lenon seeing the bulk of the action as the every-down middle linebacker. Ihenacho played 21 snaps, with most of the work at strong safety going to Omar Bolden, a second-year player who was converted from cornerback at the end of the preseason.
For a defense that has absorbed the losses of three starters in recent weeks -- safety Rahim Moore, defensive end/tackle Derek Wolfe and defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson -- the move put the defense even further into flux, and didn't appear to help all that much, as the Titans rang up 28 points and averaged 5.3 yards per play.
Woodyard had moved to middle linebacker this year after enjoying a breakout season on the weak side in 2012. But he suffered a nerve injury in his neck in October, causing him to miss two games, which could have left the Broncos cautious.
"He had a type of injury that can affect you and the more hits you take on it the less it is," said Broncos coach John Fox.
But Woodyard's health was not the only concern that led Lenon into the starting lineup.
"It's not so much just about that, it's part of it but basically the situation is giving other guys opportunities that we feel like have earned them," Fox said.
Ihenacho had risen to the first team after a strong preseason, but had not displayed the hitting and playmaking that had brought him to the coaches' attention. That led to Bolden, a converted cornerback who was shifted to safety before the final preseason game.
"Omar played pretty well, for his first game," said cornerback Chris Harris. "Man, we need playmakers back there at safety, We're pretty solid at corner. But that's what we need, man, some playmakers at safety."
It's possible that both Woodyard and Ihenacho could see plenty of work Thursday, as the Chargers' personnel groupings and tendencies will likely leave the Broncos in their nickel alignment for most of the game.
But these changes could continue until the Broncos find the right mix that stops their defensive bleeding.
"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 the others who remain know their job is the same.
"Regardless of who's in there, it really doesn't matter," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "Me, I'm just focused on the guy in front of me, getting to the quarterback and stopping the run. But I have faith in everybody behind us, regardless of whether it's Paris or Wesley, Omar (Bolden) or Duke. Regardless of who's in there, we expect them to make it happen."
SERIES HISTORY: 108th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 58-48-1. Denver has won the last five games in the series. The most notable meeting between the two teams was on Dec. 17, 1979, when the Chargers defeated the Broncos 17-7 in the regular-season finale to clinch their first division title in 14 years and consign the Broncos to the wild-card round, which saw them lose at Houston 13-7 six days later.