Spurred by the leadership of middle linebacker Al Wilson, Denver is playing some of the stingiest defense in history
THE BRONCOS' defense was holding its weekly dinner last Thursday night in the private room of a dimly lit suburban Denver steak house when middle linebacker Al Wilson strolled in and broke up the crowd—with laughter. Wilson's billowy, multicolored Coogi sweater hung so loosely that backup linebacker Keith Burns likened it to a bathrobe, and other teammates took turns making cracks until Wilson sheepishly found a seat and steered the discussion to another topic. Wilson didn't mind the ribbing, though. As a captain of the Broncos' defense, he'd hoped for such moments of bonding when he instituted these get-togethers three years ago.
Football talk is discouraged at the table, and players are encouraged to sit with different people every week. "I'm happiest when I see all these guys laughing and getting along," Wilson says. "It's always easier to play football when you know what the guy lining up next to you is really about."
Such chemistry is a major reason why the 5--1 Broncos have the stingiest defense in the league, allowing just 7.3 points a game, including only two touchdowns. It helps to have the right ingredients too. Denver's secondary has two Pro Bowl players in cornerback Champ Bailey and free safety John Lynch. The defensive linemen—Denver uses an eight-man rotation—understand their role in plugging gaps, tying up blockers and putting constant pressure on quarterbacks. And the Broncos have the best trio of linebackers in the league in D.J. Williams, Ian Gold and the 6 foot, 240 pound Wilson, a four-time Pro Bowl selection whom Burns calls "the foundation of this defense."
Wilson lived up to that billing in Sunday's 17--7 win over Cleveland. He made six tackles (helping to limit the Browns to 165 total yards) and had a role in two turnovers. Just before halftime Wilson forced a fumble from Browns running back Reuben Droughns that was recovered by defensive end Elvis Dumervil. And on the first play of the fourth quarter, Wilson blitzed Browns quarterback Charlie Frye, rushing him into an errant pass that went right to Bailey. "Al Wilson is a hell of a player," Droughns said afterward. "He makes plays sideline to sideline."
Wilson's defensive leadership has been critical this season because of the Broncos' surprising ineptitude on offense. Consider: Denver hasn't scored more than 17 points in a game this year. No one foresaw such tepid offense from a Mike Shanahan--coached team—"We're not where we want to be, so we'll have to keep working on it," Shanahan said after Sunday's game—but Wilson did expect his defensive teammates to elevate their level of play this season.
The Broncos defense had been solid in recent years, but Wilson says he sensed some magic in the current group during the off-season. Whether he was hanging out at the team's bowling league nights or working out with the other linebackers four times a week during the spring, he saw the unit gelling. All 11 starters had been together for at least one season, and they clearly understood what defensive coordinator Larry Coyer wanted from his schemes. It also helped that Wilson had matured to the point that he knew how to motivate his teammates.
An eight-year veteran, Wilson readily admits that he relied mostly on natural ability when he entered the league. But four years ago, after feeling he wasn't making the kind of impact he wanted, he started studying the game more. He now watches as much as three hours of film per night. "I want to be able to just react to everything I see," he says. "If we're going to be playing at our highest level, I need to be at the top of my game every time out."
Wilson also has a big impact in more subtle ways. When Denver was looking to make a trade with Washington to acquire Bailey back in 2004, one of the first questions Bailey asked Shanahan was whether the team was serious about re-signing Wilson, whose contract had expired. And veteran Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith advises his fellow wideouts to watch how Wilson practices. "Al is a perfectionist," Bailey says. "If we make a mistake in practice, he calls us together to get it fixed before the coaches can say anything."
There was a time when Wilson cared about gaining as much recognition as the league's other top middle linebackers, Chicago's Brian Urlacher and Baltimore's Ray Lewis. "I'm past worrying about whether the media says I'm one of the best linebackers in the game," Wilson said last Friday, surveying the Broncos' locker room. "I already feel that I am. Besides, I only play for one thing anyway—the people who are in this room with me."
Shutdown for Daunte?
Don't be surprised if Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper fails to return to the field this season. Joey Harrington has started in Miami's last three games, and Culpepper couldn't even practice during the week leading up to Sunday's 34--24 loss to Green Bay. Coach Nick Saban confirmed that Culpepper's inactivity is the result of more problems with his surgically repaired right knee—Culpepper reportedly has swelling in his patella tendon—and added that Culpepper is working hard on his rehabilitation program.
Saban isn't likely to acknowledge this, but the Dolphins clearly mismanaged their quarterback situation in the off-season. Saban chose not to sign free agent Drew Brees, who has led New Orleans to a 5--1 start, because he feared that Brees's surgically repaired right shoulder would be more of a problem than Culpepper's knee. Then, when Culpepper showed some promise during the preseason, the quarterback eased up on his rehab because, Saban says, "He was so focused on getting ready to play."
Saban maintains that he isn't ready to make a decision on Culpepper's availability for the remainder of the season, but until Culpepper is able to move better—he was sacked 21 times in his four games—the 1--6 Dolphins don't have much reason to play him. Harrington is hardly lighting it up (three touchdowns, seven interceptions), but at least he can move in the pocket; he's been sacked five times in three games. "Obviously, it didn't work the way we wanted it to," Saban says. "So we all need to try to move forward and get [Culpepper's knee] where it needs to be."
Read more from Jeffri Chadiha at SI.com/nfl.
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