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Al Wilson talks defense, leadership, Broncos...and crushing blows

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The former Broncos middle linebacker is back in Denver promoting his new FANchise venture with Colorado Crush, so we took advantage of the opportunity to talk to the five-time Pro-Bowler and always a fan favorite for this MHR exclusive.

AFC Divisional Playoffs: New England Patriots v Denver Broncos Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Broncos’ fans always have a running list in their heads of historic plays from this team.

The Helicopter. The Drive. The Fumble. The Drive II…you know the list.

And there’s usually a separate list stashed in our brains for the vicious hits – Steve Atwater ram-rodding Christian Okoye or Eddie Mac crushing Packers linebacker Brian Williams in Super Bowl 32…

But a slightly more astute fan remembers iconic Al Wilson during the 2004 "Snow Game" against the Raiders.

"Smoke Dog" knocked all the wind out of Tyrone Wheatley’s sails in a split second with a mere shove – as if he were just walking to the sideline and oh-by-the-way, "let me just put this guy on his ass first."

The announcers went berserk:

"What a shot by Al Wilson!"

"Holy Cow!"

"He just stopped him."

"Are you serious?"

"That’s one of those deals where they always tell you, don’t leave your feet. DO NOT EVER leave your feet. Because if you do, you’ve got a guy like Al Wilson about to kill [you]."

"That’s leverage…and Tyrone Wheatley is no small guy."

It has been just shy of a decade since Wilson last stepped on the field at Mile High and delivered one of those crushing blows, but the former Broncos middle linebacker still loves the game of football and especially remembering those hits.

"I loved being able to destroy an offensive guy," said the five-time Pro-Bowler who is back in Colorado to promote his new venture with FANchise and the Colorado Crush and spent time in two interviews with Mile High Report.

It certainly was.

The former first-round pick out of Tennessee was like a bulldog in the defensive backfield. At Tennessee, Wilson accumulated 77 tackles his senior year, highlighted by a 12-tackle performance in UT's 20-17 overtime win in Knoxville against No. 2-ranked Florida in which he set a school record for three caused fumbles.

A fierce competitor who could stuff the run, Wilson also played excellent pass defense and delivered vicious hits to receivers, tight ends, running backs and pretty much anyone who dared to come his way on the field.

In his eight years in the NFL – all of them with the Broncos – Wilson amassed 555 solo tackles, 21.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries, 5 interceptions and 1 defensive touchdown. He passed the 100-tackle mark in each of his last five seasons in the NFL, leading in tackles for his second consecutive year in 2003 with 128.

‘Quarterback of the defense’

But as much as he loved to hit, No. 56’s most prized role from college through the pros was being "the quarterback" for the defensive side of the ball.

"My favorite thing was being the leader, being that guy who called out the plays, told other guys what to do," Wilson said, adding that leaders are born into the role. "You either have it or you don’t, and you either take the responsibility of it or not."

Wilson had it.

And he took it.

It had required a little nudging from his then-head coach at Tennessee, Phil Fulmer, to let Wilson know his teammates were looking to him.

But from then on, it was all Wilson.

Not only did Fulmer know the All American had innate qualities to be a team leader, he knew Wilson had just spent three years observing the best in the business in that regard – Peyton Manning.

"With Peyton, his work ethic was second to none. He got there early before everybody else, and he stayed later than everyone else," Wilson recalled, noting that a team leader has to work harder than everybody else even when he may not feel like it. "From day one, I really took that to heart and added it to my game. I really appreciated playing with Peyton and that is one of the things I will always admire about him."

Photo by Bill Shipley

Wilson’s senior year with the Vols was sans Manning, and the linebacker carried the leadership torch with pride while a very green Tee Martin stepped in to fill Manning’s rather large shoes.

"We had just lost a key piece of the team with our captain gone, and Fulmer just challenged me as a player to assume my role as a leader," Wilson said. "And I took it very seriously because I knew if I didn’t, our team would not be successful. I knew it was important for me to set the tone."

And set the tone he did.

The Volunteers went 13-0 that season, beating their longtime nemesis Florida University in OT before going on to win the national championship against Florida State.

"A leader has to be willing to stand alone," Wilson said, adding that often means getting on guys not giving 100 percent while also giving 100 percent yourself even when you don’t feel like it.

And maybe especially then.

Even as a rookie the following year with the Broncos, Wilson’s leadership skills were called upon.

The Broncos had just won back-to-back Super Bowls but the legendary John Elway retired while a second-year, previously third-string Brian Griese was tapped to take over.

And it was a rough season – starting off 0-4 and finishing 6-10.

"It was tough. It was tough on Brian," Wilson said. "I don’t think he was ready [to take over the team.] Mike [Shanahan] wanted him to be ready, but he just wasn’t ready."

But Wilson was.

Wilson ‘owned the locker room, owned the huddle’

Andrew Mason of denverbroncos.com named Wilson No. 3 on his all-time best list of Broncos linebackers - partly for his fierceness on the field but most definitely for his leadership during an uncertain transition - maybe even a few of them.

"He was the heart and soul of Denver’s defense in the 2000s, one of the best run-defenders in the early part of the 21st century," Mason said. "He could shoot the gap but he was also effective in the pass rush."

But more importantly, Mason said, Wilson was a steadying force and a motivating voice for his teammates.

Wilson believes the quarterback "absolutely" needs to be the team leader, but it’s not easy when players are looking to the quarterback and he’s still trying to adjust to the NFL, learn the playbook, figure out his own way.

"It’s a very tough position," Wilson said. "It’s why they get all the accolades when they do well and all the hate when they don’t."

The similarity between the Broncos this year and the Broncos when Wilson joined the team in 1999 - young QB, experienced defense, inconsistent offense - is uncanny, and a fact not lost on Wilson.

"It’s a lot of pressure," he said, noting both Trevor Siemian’s and Paxton Lynch’s roles on this team. "Now you are the man and expected to win. But the guys on the other side of the ball know you’re a rookie and they’re absolutely ready to kill you."

Having a consistently tough defense with veteran leadership helped carry the Broncos through some of those rough seasons, and Wilson is enjoying paying attention to this Broncos defense now doing much the same thing.

He has definitely noticed some similarities in the Broncos’ recent defenses compared to his squads of the early 2000s, particularly the 2005 team that went 13-3 behind Jake Plummer and fell just short of reaching the Super Bowl.

But it was the doggedness of the players working together on that 2005 defense that reminds Wilson of the Broncos’ historic 2015 squad.

"I believe the tenacity of those players, and the fact that everyone was on the same page," Wilson said of the Super Bowl champs. "Don't get me wrong, when you got guys like Von Miller, Malik Jackson, Demarcus Ware and those guys up front getting off the ball and causing havoc, it does make a hell of a difference."

Wilson thinks of the 2005 defense’s success mostly like a group effort, which is what he noticed from the Broncos D last year.

"The back end played its part, the linebackers showed up when they needed to. It was a team effort," Wilson said of the 2015 squad. "If somebody made a mistake, there was someone there to back them up. ...Everyone was on their game and they played well, that's why they ended up winning the Super Bowl."

Wilson doesn’t believe that the loss of several big-time players from last season to this one - such as Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan and David Bruton Jr. - will ultimately hurt the defense, but it always takes time building camaraderie.

And there’s something to be said for being the defending champs and having every team bring its best game to compete against you.

"When you are Super Bowl champs you are getting everyone's best shot each week," Wilson said. "I believe that is what is happening to this team right now, but they are still standing up and playing good football."

"Good football" is definitely something the Broncos will need to play to beat the Texans Monday night, and the former No. 56 believes the current No. 58 could be a key piece to that win.

"Especially Von Miller, I'm sure they are going to be putting extreme pressure on [Oz]," Wilson said, "and [Oz] is going to be thinking about it while he is back there because he has been teammates with these guys, he knows what they can do."

And what they can do - especially Miller - is something Wilson most certainly appreciates.

"I can definitely see his passion, his love for football," Wilson said of the Super Bowl MVP. "I respect his game."

Despite the two recent losses, if anyone knows to always bet on the Broncos, it’s a former Bronco.

"I definitely have the Broncos pulling it out," Wilson said of the Monday night showdown, throwing in a 35-17 prediction that includes some defensive touchdowns.

"I think they will be inspired playing against Osweiler. Whenever you play against an ex-teammate on the offensive side you always want to shut them down, you always want to play extremely well against those guys."

Poll

Favorite thing about Al Wilson?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    He was not afraid to tackle.
    (28 votes)
  • 1%
    Loved his "talking" on the field.
    (6 votes)
  • 23%
    The crushing blows!
    (75 votes)
  • 45%
    Leadership for the defense, team
    (142 votes)
  • 19%
    "Whorfin" ... of course!
    (60 votes)
  • 1%
    "Shasta"
    (4 votes)
315 votes total Vote Now