It was fairly clear why the Denver Broncos lost their third game of the year on Thursday night last week; they were flat out dominated in the run game. The San Diego Chargers ran for 11 first downs while the Broncos ran for only one. Chargers running back Ryan Mathews carried the ball 29 times for 127 yards and one touchdown. The entire Broncos offense only ran the ball 11 times for just 39 yards. Thanks to the Broncos’ inability to stop the run, the Chargers were able to safely move down the football field, dominate possession, and keep Peyton Manning off the field and out of rhythm.
The Broncos’ defense had played relatively well against the run up to this point in large part due to the team’s big and experienced defensive tackles, Terrance Knighton and Kevin Vickerson. Both have played very well this year and very well with each other while opening room for linebackers like Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard to make plays in space.
However, Vickerson was placed on the injured reserve list last week, and the Broncos’ continued success will now heavily rely on Sylvester Williams, the team’s first round draft pick from earlier this year.
While Sly is not quite as big as Vickerson, he still possesses great size at (6-foot-3, 313-pounds) and has a surprisingly quick first step. However, Vickerson’s eight years of NFL experience is something no amount of talent can make up for – especially at defensive tackle. Williams is adjusting to the speed and overall strength in the NFL, and he is still figuring out how to efficiently beat NFL blocks while consistently making plays on the interior.
That being said, Williams’ first official start came this week against the Chargers, and while the team’s defense played rather poorly Williams played by far the best game of his young career (five tackles and a sack). He demonstrated his clear potential to step in and become key player along Denver’s defensive front this year.
It will be interesting to see how the rookie plays in the final two games of the regular season as a starter as the team prepares for the playoffs. That’s especially the case as the Broncos get some of their key injured players back – namely Champ Bailey, Rahim Moore, and hopefully Derek Wolfe – who will relieve some pressure off the rookie defensive tackle and allow him the freedom to make more plays.
Though third-year player Mitch Unrein will help Williams fill Vickerson’s rather large shoes, Williams is clearly the most talented option for a replacement and getting the opportunity to start in the NFL will likely light a fire under him. Williams was building carburetors on a factory line just a few years ago as a college dropout. Now as a 25 year old he is not only more mature than most rookies, but he also better understands the immense opportunity in front of him.
Despite a poor defensive performance last week, as Sly gets more reps with the starting group and learns to play alongside Terrance Knighton, this defense should dramatically improve against the run. Quite simply, Williams is ready step up and prove himself to his teammates as well as the entire NFL.
Written by John Spina. Follow him on Facebook or on Twitter @jsspina24.