Broncos need Unrein, Williams to play big

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
12:05
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the tidal wave of touchdowns, passing yards and headaches the league’s elite quarterbacks have thrown at defensive coordinators far and wide, run defense can often get lost in all of the confetti tossed at the NFL's high-end passing games.

But in the current state of affairs run defense could decide how things go for a battered Denver Broncos defense over the last four weeks of the regular season. Especially given their current injuries in the defensive line.

“They’ll deal with it,’’ said defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. “Everybody knows we don’t want to let that get away from us and those guys will deal with what they need to.’’

[+] EnlargeJack Del Rio
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeInjuries will force defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to try some new combinations.
And that is one of the biggest issues in the Broncos’ run defense at the moment. The fact that Vickerson has to say things like “those guys,’’ as he guides his 330-pound frame around the locker room using a set of crutches. Vickerson, who has been an early-down stalwart in the Broncos defense, has been placed on injured reserve after suffering a dislocated hip in the overtime loss in New England.

The Broncos are also missing defensive end Derek Wolfe. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has always said while the team lists Wolfe as a defensive end, they ask Wolfe to look, play and act like a defensive tackle “about 80 percent of the time.’’ Wolfe is currently out as doctors try to find the cause of what the team has called “seizure-like symptoms’’ he suffered on the bus ride to the airport this past Friday.

Former Broncos cornerback Tracy Porter suffered a seizure in training camp last season, suffered the symptoms later in the season and was later put on injured reserve. The Broncos have said the cases are not the same, but some of the tests Wolfe has been given are similar.

Wolke spent the weekend in a Denver hospital before being released Monday and was at the team’s south suburban complex later in the day.

“They’re still running tests,’’ said Broncos head coach John Fox. “ … I think they’re still trying to get a handle on what happened and compare it. I’m not saying it’s nearly the same, but some of the same things we went through with Tracy Porter a year ago … Right now we’re not thinking about his availability or any of that stuff we’re just concerned about his health and medical people are working through that as we speak.’’

And from a football perspective the Broncos are a vastly different defense without Vickerson and Wolfe, at least that’s what opposing offensive coaches believe. Without the two in the lineup Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs pounded out 159 yards rushing, 46 of that from quarterback Alex Smith who was in escape mode at times.

While none of the Broncos four remaining regular-season opponents currently has a winning record, they will know an issue when they see it if the Broncos can’t tighten things up a bit. The Raiders, who the Broncos play in three weeks, are fifth in the league in rushing while the Chargers, a Thursday night opponent Dec. 12, have already rushed for 131 yards against the Broncos last month when both Vickerson and Wolfe were in the lineup.

Vickerson has always described his game as “big boy’’ and has been a key piece of Del Rio’s run defense up front. Vickerson played at about 290 pounds for then defensive coordinator Dennis Allen in 2011, but has played closer to 330 for Del Rio. Paired with Terrance Knighton in the base defense, the Broncos hoped to clog the middle and keep the blockers off their fleet set of linebackers.

“And those guys are my protectors,’’ said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “(Vickerson) is a guy you want in there, but our other guys have to step up now.’’

Wolfe, too, has always been a key piece to Del Rio’s plan up front, given there’s almost no spot across the defensive front where Del Rio won’t play him. Wolfe routinely lines up at left defensive end on early downs, but moves inside to defensive tackle in pass rush situations. His absence vacates a lot of snaps in the defense.

Overall, in the 11 games Wolfe has played for the Broncos this season, only Shaun Phillips has played more snaps among the defensive linemen. Phillips played 554 plays in those 11 games while Wolfe played 553.

“If it means more on my plate, I’m good with that,’’ Knighton said. “We think we have the personnel to do what we need to, but we know the job too. You can’t expect the offense to go out there and throw five touchdowns every time. We have to get stops and get off the field.’’

Most of the early down work will fall to Mitch Unrein and rookie Sylvester Williams -- the two combined for four tackles in Sunday’s win in Kansas City. Malik Jackson probably will get most of the snaps when the Broncos go to more of a speed look in the nickel or dime packages. Unrein has battled his way up from the practice squad to a spot in the rotation in his career with the Broncos, but at 306 pounds, he is smaller at the point of attack than Vickerson, as is Williams, at 316 pounds.

“We think we have the kind of defense that can be there when this team needs us,’’ Vickerson said. “Those young guys know what’s needed, they can’t play like young guys now, it’s time.’’

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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