ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Wesley Woodyard has no intention of slipping back into a substitute role when D.J. Williams returns from his nine-game, NFL-mandated banishment next month.
The Broncos have no plans of letting him off the field, either. He's the first Denver defender to record 50 tackles with multiple sacks (three) and interceptions (two) before the midway point of the season.
The fifth-year linebacker was a one-man wrecking crew in the Broncos' 34-14 thrashing of Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints last weekend, getting 13 tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and strip, and a game-turning interception.
"I noticed I was around the ball a lot," Woodyard said.
The Saints managed just one first down, rushed for only 51 yards and didn't reach the red zone until just before the two-minute warning Sunday night.
Woodyard was the biggest reason for that. Yet he's not one to bask in the afterglow of his monster prime-time performance.
"I've still got a lot to do to get better," Woodyard said. "It's definitely one of the games I'll look back on and say I made a lot of plays. But I only focus on those few plays that I gave up."
Asked what he could have possibly done any better against New Orleans, Woodyard was quick with his answer: "Just better dropping in coverage. I wish I could take that Darren Sproles touchdown back. You know, I feel like I let the team down on that. So, I've got to be a lot better with my eyes and play better to take away that play."
Woodyard leads the Broncos with 58 tackles, 14 more than runner-up Mike Adams, a big jump for a guy who spent his first four seasons playing mostly on special teams.
Woodyard got his chance when Williams, the team's leading tackler in four of the last five seasons, was suspended for the first six games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
The NFL tacked on a three-game suspension over his alcohol-related driving conviction in August, pushing Williams;' return back to Nov. 18, when the Broncos play San Diego.
"It's always good to have a guy that can roll in," said Woodyard. "D.J., with his experience, that allows us to be able to play a lot of different things and do a lot of different things with him."
It's almost certain that one of those roles won't be his old starting job at weak side linebacker, the position Woodyard won with an outstanding training camp and now has a stranglehold hold on.
With Joe Mays being placed on injured reserve Tuesday after breaking his left ankle blocking on a punt return against the Saints, Williams might end up sharing snaps at middle linebacker with 15-year veteran Keith Brooking when he returns to practice Nov. 12.
The Broncos haven't revealed their plans for Williams. What they do know is that Woodyard is too valuable to take off the field anymore.
"He was primarily a special teams guy when we got here," second-year coach John Fox said. "But he's got good straight-line speed. He does have good instincts."
Woodyard wasn't drafted out of Kentucky, the knock on him being his size — 6 feet, 229 pounds — which many scouts felt was too small to be an every-down player in the pros.
He's risen up to that challenge this year.
"There have been guys who have played at the highest level of this league who haven't been big guys," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, himself a former linebacker. "He's done a good job. He's played well. He's practicing with intensity, which we like. And he's done a good job playing for us in a role that's kind of gotten bigger maybe than he thought it might be entering the year and we thought it might be entering the year."
Woodyard is like the gambler who won't count his stack of chips until the dealing's done, downplaying all the big plays he's been making.
"I focus on the little things that I did wrong," Woodyard said. "I feel like I left some plays out there. I've got to continue to get better."
Notes: The Broncos promoted S Duke Ihenacho to take Mays' roster spot, and they signed CB Mario Butler to replace Ihenacho on their practice squad. Ihenacho, a rookie from San Jose State, spent two weeks on Denver's active roster earlier this season.
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