There are some big stars on the Denver Broncos defense.
Von Miller has made his return to the lineup after a six-game suspension. Champ Bailey, who is sitting out at the moment with a foot injury, is future Hall of Famer and considered one of the best cornerbacks to play the game.
But the real MVP of the Broncos defense is middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard.
Woodyard injured his neck in the first half of Denver’s 51-48 win at the Dallas Cowboys; the defense never looked the same without him. The Broncos gave up 28 points in the second half of that game. Then, Denver went on to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars without Woodyard but gave up a ton of yards to the worst team in the NFL. Things seemed a bit unsettled on defense.
In the Broncos’ first loss of the season to the Indianapolis Colts, Denver gave up 39 points. In the three games without Woodyard, the Broncos allowed 35.3 points a game. Even though the Broncos won two of those three games, the defense looked suspect at best. When Woodyard was starting, the Broncos only give up 22.4 points a game.
That all started to change on Sunday and it was because of Woodyard’s return.
Woodyard only had five tackles in the win, which is extremely low for him, but he was seen all over the field. He also brings a lot of emotion to the unit, which it really needs. He was a leader when he was a captain on special teams and he has taken over that role on the defense as well.
He brings a lot of attitude to the Broncos, too. He has had two vicious hits on quarterbacks this season. Both he should have been flagged for but was not. He knocked out Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor with a big hit in Week 3 and he hit Redskins backup Kirk Cousins right in the chin on Sunday.
The former Kentucky Wildcat has always had talent but sometimes it was tough to see. One of only five players left from Mike Shanahan’s tenure, Woodyard flourished on special teams as an undrafted rookie in 2008.
Woodyard finally started at linebacker for an injured D.J. Williams late in his rookie season. But whenever Williams would return, Woodyard would head back to the bench. Lucky for the Broncos and Woodyard, Williams was out of the lineup much due to drug suspensions and injuries.
The linebacker never really became a constant starter until 2012 when he started 15 games for the 13-3 Broncos. He led the team in tackles with 114 and also had 5.5 sacks to go along with three picks. He was becoming a do-everything type of linebacker. He now has 36 starts under his belt.
Also, during this year’s training camp, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio asked Woodyard to make a position change. After playing most of his career as a weakside linebacker, Woodyard made the move to the middle. Woodyard took it in stride and has made the most of the move.
He may be undersized for the position but his play is making it hard to tell. He is still a tackling machine and the leader of a defense should be the middle linebacker; it’s a perfect fit.
Miller may get all the headlines for the right and wrong reasons on the Broncos defense but Woodyard is proving to be irreplaceable. Veteran Paris Lenon tried to take over for Woodyard but seemed invisible in those games. Lenon does not have the leadership, cover skills or tackling ability that Woodyard possess.
After the upcoming bye week, the Broncos defense should be as close to healthy as they have been all year. With a healthy Woodyard, fresh Miller and an emerging Danny Trevathan, the Broncos linebacking corps may be one of the most talented in the league.
The Broncos defense turned a corner on Sunday. It showed what it could have been all season, but now is a good time to get everything right on that side of the ball. It all starts with Woodyard.
Chris Schmaedeke is currently the Assistant Sports Editor at the Daily Camera in Boulder. He has worked in sports journalism in Colorado since 2001 when he started at the Rocky Mountain News. He has covered the Denver Broncos for several websites over the past two years.
Follow Chris on Twitter at @ChrisSchmaedeke