ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- They are already the highest-scoring team in the franchise’s history, are in the top spot in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC, but that doesn’t mean the Denver Broncos aren’t still searching for answers on a defense that hasn't yet found a groove to match the team's record-setting offense.
And in Sunday’s win against the Tennessee Titans, that meant dialing back one of the team captains in linebacker Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho were nudged down the depth chart a bit as Paris Lenon started at middle linebacker in Woodyard’s place and Omar Bolden played much of the day in what had previously been Ihenacho’s strong safety spot.
The issue is the Broncos continue to surrender too many points for anyone’s liking at their Dove Valley complex as the postseason approaches. They have surrendered at least 17 points in every game this season, and are 26th in the league in scoring defense (26.5 points allowed per game), 25th in total yards allowed per game and 29th in passing yards allowed per game.
“I thought we put some guys and plugged them in,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox on Monday. “ … Paris Lenon, again he’s a veteran guy and he’s played a lot of football, and we haven’t given him a lot of opportunities. Some of this is giving guys opportunities to see what they can do. We try to get better every day and every week as we move closer to the end of the season. I think it just helps us. Our agenda is to get better every day, that’s what we’re trying to do.’’
After he missed two games with a neck injury (a stinger) he suffered in the win in Dallas, Woodyard returned to play 71, 71, 78 and 87 plays in the next four games, respectively. Some with the team believed the injury was affecting Woodyard’s play to some degree, and already undersized at middle linebacker at 233 pounds, the Broncos have tried to regulate his snap counts. Woodyard had been moved from his more natural weakside linebacker spot into the middle earlier this season when neither Stewart Bradley nor Nate Irving were able to keep the job.
Woodyard played 49 of 72 defensive snaps against the Chiefs two weeks ago and played just 10 snaps on defense Sunday to go with 18 plays on special teams. The team put Lenon into the base 4-3 defense for the most part, and he was in the middle for 23 plays against the Titans, finishing with three tackles. Lenon is slightly bigger (240 pounds) than Woodyard and has far more experience at the middle linebacker spot in his previous 11 seasons in the league.
Some of it could have been in the matchup as well, as the Titans run far more two-back and two-tight-end looks -- often at the same time -- than many teams do. Even if the Broncos wanted to keep Lenon in the middle in the base defense, Woodyard will still play plenty when the Broncos are in their specialty packages with Woodyard and Danny Trevathan as the two linebackers.
“Wesley Woodyard is a great player for us and he’s done a tremendous job,’’ Fox said. “Wesley Woodyard’s fine. He’s going to play a lot of football for us moving forward … It’s that the other guys have earned opportunities, and the more guys that you can call on, the better it is for your football team.”
Following the Broncos’ 51-28 win, Fox said Woodyard had been “rested a bit’’ in the game. Asked Monday to clarify, Fox said: “He had a type of injury that can affect you … 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.”
Bolden arrived in the 2012 draft class as a cornerback for the Broncos, but they have played him at safety at times this season because they like his coverage skills, and his physical play around the line of scrimmage when asked to tackle in the run game. Bolden earned Sunday’s playing time with his work in practice, and opposing offenses had increasingly gone after Ihenacho in coverage in recent games.
Bolden played 41 snaps on defense Sunday -- 82 percent of the Broncos’ total and most of them plays when the Broncos were in their base defense -- while Ihenacho played 21 as the Broncos used plenty of six- and seven-defensive-back looks in the game.