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Notes: Fox noncommittal about rotating middle LBs

ENGLEWOOD – Wesley Woodyard and Keith Brooking keep each other fresh at weakside linebacker by dividing the snaps; Woodyard takes nickel and dime package plays; Brooking handles the work in the base 4-3. Even Von Miller gets some relief at strongside linebacker, being replaced by second-year veteran Nate Irving for four plays on Sunday.

But middle linebacker Joe Mays? There was little rest for the weary veteran coming off a one-game suspension.

No one spelled Mays, and that’s been the case for most of the season, which is why he played a higher percentage of snaps than any other linebacker during the four games in which he took part over the last five weeks. That held true Sunday; Mays played 88 of 94 snaps; no other linebacker played more than 79.

With Keith Brooking temporarily sidelined because of a concussion, that leaves the Broncos thin at linebacker. But they drafted Irving in 2011 to be a middle linebacker; after he didn’t push for the job as a rookie, he became Miller’s backup on the strong side this year.

Given Mays’ struggles in coverage Sunday, the question is logical: might the Broncos move Irving back to the middle in a reserve role, to try and push Mays?

Broncos coach John Fox, as is his wont, was noncommittal.

“I think you’re always looking to do things to better your football team, and that will be no different this week. Who it involves, we won’t get into for strategic reasons,” Fox said. “But we do look at that.”

First-down thud: The Broncos’ struggles on third down are well-documented and quantifiable, but Fox also cited first downs as a problem.

“It was very evident they were playing keep-away from our offense, and our inability to get stops on third down — along with our first-and-10 run defense — allowed them to do that,” Fox said.

New England ran more than twice as often as it threw on first down, calling 27 runs, 12 pass plays and one kneel down. Tom Brady went 9-of-12 for 76 yards and a touchdown on first down (118.7 rating), but the Patriots racked up 123 yards on 27 carries and two scores on first downs, and averaged 4.6 yards per carry.

The Patriots’ first-down success didn’t keep them from third-and-long situations; their needed third-down yardage Sunday was 6.9 yards — 1.6 yards more than that of the Broncos.

“Let’s not forget: they’re not bad at converting them,” Fox said. “We haven’t been, either, the problem is defensively getting the ball back to our offense, and we have to do a better job of it.”

INJURY UPDATE: Brooking will go through the normal post-concussion recovery protocol, Fox said. Irving went through the same process after Week 3 and was not ready to play seven days later against the Raiders; he returned to game work Sunday … The Broncos emerged with no other notable injuries.

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