ENGLEWOOD – Usually lineup changes come at the bye week. The Broncos decided they couldn’t wait for that — and the impact could be far-reaching for the second half of the season.
Let’s take a gander at the changes Monday night — aside from the cornerback shift necessitated by Tracy Porter’s illness, since that was a one-game, “next man up” shift — and see how they fared:
MLB Keith Brooking:
So far: He moved from weakside to middle linebacker and performed with barely a hiccup in place of Joe Mays, who not only was pushed down the depth chart, but didn’t play any defensive snaps Monday. Brooking, meanwhile, played 36 snaps, was in on five tackles and was, above all, a steadying influence.
“We have not given up on Joe Mays by any stretch; he’s still a very good football player,” said Broncos coach John Fox. “We’re in the business of doing what it takes to win, and that was what we thought at that time.”
The impact of Mays’ demotion and Brooking’s move inside was profound for Wesley Woodyard, who returned to the every-down role he held in Weeks 1 and 4 and led the Broncos in tackles. Woodyard was one of three Broncos to play every snap Monday (Champ Bailey and Rahim Moore were the others).
Outlook: Brooking’s 15 years in the game have made him one of the most pragmatic, realistic players in any NFL locker room, so he understands that a role that has him playing approximately half the snaps is the best way to maximize his effectiveness. What the Broncos decide to do with suspended linebacker D.J. Williams when he returns in Week 11 could determine his future use. The Broncos could use Williams as the weakside linebacker, and Brooking would stay in his spot; they could utilize Williams in the middle, and Brooking could return to his role as a 4-3 weakside linebacker, with Woodyard playing on passing downs. Either way, expect Brooking to continue playing about half the snaps.
RG Chris Kuper:
So far: He returned to the starting lineup and performed with barely a hiccup — which Fox attributes to the gradual build-up to his work Monday: a week of practice before being inactive against Oakland, another week of practice and being active, but on the bench, at New England, followed by more practice and playing 100 percent of the offensive snaps Monday.
“I think that was a good thing for us and him,” Fox said of the decision to use the last two weeks as an on-ramp for Kuper before merging him into full-speed traffic. “It takes a while; your fight is run in front of you as an O-Lineman. There’s some timing and technical things that have to be worked in, but all in all, I thought he did a very good job.”
Outlook: Expect him to only get better with time. He’s the leader of the offensive line — as reflected by his status as a team captain — and Manning will learn quickly that he’s in reliable, secure hands with the seven-year veteran patrolling the inside. Don’t expect Manning to find himself under attack as often as he was in September with Kuper and the improving Orlando Franklin working together on the right side.
LB Danny Trevathan:
So far: The sixth-round pick hasn’t started, but with Mays demoted, he returned to his role as one of two linebackers — along with Woodyard — in the nickel package, playing 15 snaps Monday. He was active, posting tackles on 26.7 percent of his snaps. (By comparison, Woodyard led the Broncos in tackles with nine, but played all 74 defensive snaps, for a percentage of 12.2.)
“It’s different just knowing and being able to execute under pressure, which is the hard part. I saw another week’s growth in him,” Fox said. “He played more plays, got more opportunities and he’ll continue to grow.”
Outlook: For the next three games he’ll likely continue to rotate in when the Broncos go into their nickel. That role could end when D.J. Williams returns; the Broncos could opt for experience and return to using Williams and Woodyard as the primary nickel linebackers, as they did last year. Nevertheless, he’s already played far more snaps than 2011 third-round pick Nate Irving did. The Broncos like what they see so far, and they’ll likely give Trevathan more chances to make plays from the edge. Whether that’s enough for him to keep his expanded role beyond mid-November … we’ll see.
PR Trindon Holliday:
So far: His opening act could have scarcely been worse, as he lost his grip on a potential fair catch, allowing San Diego to recover and take a 3-0 lead in the first quarter Monday night. Seeing how 2011 returner Quan Cosby was cut shortly after coming down with a case of the bobbles in a Dec. 18, 2011 game against New England, speculation shot through the Qualcomm Stadium press box that Holliday would face a similar fate, but Fox provided reassurance Tuesday that the speedy 5-foot-5 sprite would get another shot.
Outlook: Holliday got another chance because his fumble was indirectly caused by Jim Leonhard, who blocked San Diego’s Marcus Gilchrist into his sphere, leading to the fumble — and a justified no-call for fair-catch interference. Holliday’s two touchdowns on punt returns in the preseason intrigue the Broncos enough for him to withstand one fumble. But don’t expect a second reprieve if he bobbles again — especially if he hasn’t managed to show breakaway potential. He also can’t afford to be as timid in pursuing a bouncing ball as he was on a third-quarter return. Special teams coach Jeff Rodgers’ job the next 12 days will be to push the fumble out of Holliday’s mind and rebuild his confidence.