When it was learned that DJ would move away from his WILL LB spot, the move went almost unnoticed. Perhaps this was because of major concerns elsewhere around the team, especially the defense. The team leader in sacks, Reggie Hayward, took his 10.5 sacks to Jacksonville, and the teams backup strong safety, Kenoy Kennedy, left for greener pastures on the astroturf in Detroit. As the entire Cleveland Browns starting defensive line arrived in town, it was forgivable if one's attention wandered from a LB corp that regained one of its most dangerous veterans, in Ian Gold, and which had linebacking studs Williams and Wilson returning. Attention was needed elsewhere and the unit looked solid.
Meanwhile, the Broncos were grasping at their defensive identity. Trevor Pryce, initially rumored to be on the trading block to start 2005, was returning from an injury plagued 2004, and was expected to lead the way for what was believed to be a talented but perenially unmotivated defensive line from the Browns that included Warren, Ekuban and Myers. That move alone signalled the distance the team was from building the defense of their dreams. The free agent departures of the last two years were gutting their depth, and the drafts leading up to 2004 had added next to nothing to compensate. In some ways they seemed to be turning the corner, with the additions of DJ, Foxworth and others, but when the Browncos arrived in town, alongside Gold and his demands for his old number and position, it became clear that they were clutching at "familiarity" as the defensive identity that would get them through a tough spot.
It almost worked.
2005 AFC Championship Game. A Broncos team that has spent the season in preparation for a trip to the RCA dome, gets a pleasant surprise: They will get to host one more game at Inveso before the season is over. The Colts fell to Pittsburgh, moving the AFC championship game to Denver, where the Broncos were 9-0 in 2005.
As they attempted to make it 10-0, and secure a berth in the Superbowl, the Denver LBs turned in a less than explosive performance. And it is interesting to note that in this game, while Wilson manned the middle, DJ recorded a sack blitzing from the weakside while Gold was primarily in coverage on Heath Miller all day. Huh? If you've been keeping up with HT's descriptions of the duties of the LBs, this should strike you as odd. The fact that this was how they had lined up all year makes it even odder. Wasn't DJ listed as the starting SAM LB all year?
LOLB (SAM, SLB)
HT:The OLB playing the strong side has multiple roles. In Coyer's "man - show blitz" he covers the TE. In this case he must have the speed to do so, but the power to man up against a big TE. In other defenses the role is filled by the strong safety. Other roles include zoning the strong side, blitzing wide, or going man on one of the backs. MLBs vary, but SAMs are typically fast for their size.
Because the WILL has fewer responsibilities (zone weak or blitz in most cases), the SAM has more chances to make big plays or blow big plays. SAMs don’t get to blitz as much as WILLs, since they aren’t aligned on the QB’s blindside. Thus, while the SAM may get more tackles, the WILL often gets more glories (by getting the high profile sacks).
"I never swapped," Williams said.
He had spent the entire 2005 season at WILL LB, while Gold had manned the SAM LB position, where he led the team in tackles with 106. DJ, while manning his familiar, "natural" position, finished as the team's sixth leading tackler, with a hardly awe-inspiring tally of 68. What had changed?
As in, he was on the field for 55% of the plays, about half as many plays as he had been on in his rookie season, and the reason wasn't necessarily the return of Gold, but the return of Gold's superior pass coverage skills. While Gold saw action in 92% of the defensive snaps, DJ came out in the nickel formations, and was often the afterthought in substitution schemes. The latter was a fault openly admitted in the 2006 offseason by Coyer, who stated that in the future, "we've got to have a plan. We need to be better prepared than we were last season." And the biggest reason they needed a plan was that for the 2006 season, the label of SAM for DJ was going to be more than windowdressing. This time he was moving over for real.
Hanging On and Letting Go
|The 2006 offseason also saw the offense add 3 significant pieces to its nucleus, in guard Kuper, WR Marshall, TE Scheffler and QB Cutler. As an added bonus, and in light of the controversial move to waive Trevor Pryce, a move that had been in the makings from a salary cap perspective for over a year, Denver picked up an unheralded producer in DE Dumervil. Besides Pryce, the Broncos parted ways with RB Anderson, and WR Lelie, and began creating a rift between them and their starting QB, Plummer. But still they hung onto the discarded Browns D-linemen, adding a few more in the process, and as well they hung onto shreds and remnants of their changing defensive philosophy, despite seeing its effectiveness fade as the 2006 season bore out.
Most grievous among these decisions was to stick with the decision to move DJ to SAM. He was not a liability in coverage, but he referred to the work at the position as a grind, due to not practicing coverage skills for over a year, having been told to sit in nickel situations. When asked if he would prefer to be back at WILL, he replied "I would have remained at weak side because it comes naturally but if it makes our three-man corps better as a whole, than that's what I've got to do."
DJ logged 86 tackles and 2 forced fumbles for the season, but in a testament for how far the Broncos were moving a playmaker from what came naturally to him, he failed to log a sack until the final home game against San Francisco, in an effort of too little too late for the Broncos playoff chances.
And so the 2006 season ended much as it had started, with too many mistakes, not enough opportunities, and no idea where they were heading. When Al Wilson went limp with a devestating neck injury, the reality of what Denver had created was exposed. Many things of value had been put at risk to overcome bumps in the road to a Championship, and now it was time to try and salvage what was left. It was obvious that the next season would see Plummer let go, and Wilson let go.
The only thing left to find out: What would they try and hang onto?