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Merilatt: Woodyard needs to be a permanent starter

For the seventh time in seven games this season, D.J. Williams wasn’t on the field for the Broncos. With his suspension for failing a drug test behind him, the nine-year pro began serving his second stint in Roger Goodell’s doghouse during last night’s victory over the Saints. As Denver was pounding New Orleans by a 34-14 score, Williams was nowhere to be found, absent from the stadium as he sat out the first of three games of a suspension for a DWAI conviction.

For one of the rare times this season, the Broncos didn’t appear to miss him.

In what was their most dominant defensive performance in recent memory, Denver almost completely shut down Drew Brees and Company. On the night, the high-powered Saints offense was held to a mere 252 yards, 80 of which came on a meaningless drive in the fourth quarter, and only 14 points, seven of which came in garbage time.

Considering that New Orleans entered the primetime affair with the league’s top-rated passing offense and was averaging nearly 30 points per game, it was an impressive showing from Denver’s defense, to say the least. And to do it without Williams, who, love him or hate him, is one of the three or four best Broncos on that side of the ball – was even more of a feat.

How was Jack Del Rio’s group able to slow down one of the league’s juggernauts? By letting one of the team’s best playmakers be on the field.

In the season opener, Wesley Woodyard led the Broncos with 12 solo tackles, while also recording a sack. After that win, however, he was inexplicably relegated to situational duty, sharing time with Keith Brooking in a perplexing linebacker rotation. Shortly thereafter, Denver’s defense began to struggle, part of the reason why the team lost three of their next four games.

Two weeks ago, however, the light finally went on for Del Rio. Joe Mays, the middle linebacker who everyone could see was the weakest link of the defense, was benched, Brooking was moved inside and Woodyard was given more of an opportunity to once again be on the field.

It’s no coincidence that the Broncos defense has shined the last two times they’ve played. They held the Chargers to what amounted to only one drive of any substance. And last night, they dominated one of the game’s most-potent offenses.

In the process, Woodyard has been a key cog in Denver’s defensive turnaround. In San Diego, he had eight tackles and three assists. And against the Saints, he was the best defensive player on the field, recording nine tackles, four assists, two pass breakups, one sack, a forced fumble and an interception.

That’s the type of stat line typically reserved for an All-Pro. It’s certainly not something one would expect from a player the Broncos keep trying to find reasons to leave on the sidelines.

A year ago, Woodyard led Denver with 97 tackles. And once again this season, he’s atop that list – racking up 48 through seven games. Obviously, the guy has a nose for the football.

But he also has a knack for making plays. And on a team that has struggled to force turnovers in recent seasons, that trait can’t be overvalued. Woodyard’s innate ability to cause good things to happen is vital to Denver’s defense.

A year ago, he tied for the team lead in forced fumbles with three. This season, he’s already become the first Broncos linebacker to intercept two or more passes in a season since Al Wilson in 2004.

Perhaps he doesn’t have all of the “measurables” – at six-foot and 229 pounds, he’s slightly undersized – but he more than makes up for it in football instincts, heart and work ethic. At some point, Denver’s coaching staff needs to stop worrying about what they see on the scale and/or the stopwatch and only concern themselves with what’s happening on the field. By that measure, Woodyard has been arguably their most consistent performer during the past season-and-a-half.

Twenty days from today, Williams will be back in a Broncos uniform and on the field. When he returns, however, he shouldn’t displace Woodyard.

Woodyard made more plays last night than I remember Williams making during his entire time in Denver. That’s an exaggeration, but not a giant one.

Put Williams in for Brooking. Leave him standing next to Del Rio on the sidelines. Make him play special teams. Whatever. Just don’t put a key defensive player, and a bona fide playmaker, on the bench.

It’s time to stop ignoring the evidence. Wesley Woodyard has earned a permanent spot in the Broncos starting lineup.

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