ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the beginning there were Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell.
They were the best of the Broncos’ inside linebackers. They were not the latest. Both went down with season-ending torn pectoral injuries – Jewell in the second game at Jacksonville and Johnson in game six against the Raiders.
Then came Justin Strnad, Micah Kiser, Curtis Robinson, Baron Browning, Kenny Young and Jonas Griffith. When there are eight players at a two-position group, simple math says you’re down to the fourth string inside linebackers.
“Yeah and some of them weren’t in camp with us,’’ said head coach Vic Fangio, who also runs the defense. “That’s when it becomes harder."
> Video above: Broncos chasing playoffs, host Bengals on Sunday.
Kiser, Young and Griffith were acquired after training camp and the preseason. Robinson, an undrafted rookie, has since been released.
No wonder the Denver D has struggled at times to stop the run. Remember Cleveland’s third-string running back D’Ernest Johnson rushing for 146 yards on 22 carries in a Thursday night primetime loss? Or Browns’ smallish quarterback Case Keenum running through a Strnad tackle at the 3-yard line on his way in for a touchdown?
Just this past week, in an otherwise impressive win against Detroit, a COVID crisis within the Lions locker room had them calling up Craig Reynolds in an emergency. The practice squader rushed for 83 yards on 11 carries.
And it’s just not eight players at the two spots. It’s eight styles of play.
“Communication-wise it’s been tough. Everybody plays the position differently,’’ said safety Justin Simmons, who serves as the quarterback to the defensive players lined up behind the front. “You have your set rules, but everyone sees things differently. So you always have to communicate and talk through those things.’’+-
Simmons said he and safety mate Kareem Jackson played with 10 cornerbacks last year. The depth problem at that position helped Simmons and Jackson deal with the inside linebacker issue this year. With Young in the concussion protocol, the Broncos’ starting inside linebackers Sunday against Cincinnati will be rookie Baron Browning, who missed most of the offseason and training camp with injuries, and possibly Griffith, who was acquired for his special teams skills but has now jumped Strnad and Kiser, who is just returning from a groin injury.
And here comes the Bengals’ Joe Mixon, one of only two NFL rushers who has crossed the 1,000-yard barrier with four games remaining.
“We’re trying to get that honed up the best we can,’’ Fangio said of his run defense.
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