Rare thoroughbreds: Broncos linebackers

Denver derives dominance from agile defensive corps

September 28, 2002|By Patrick Saunders | Patrick Saunders,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Once upon a time, not so long ago, when the Denver Broncos were winning back-to-back Super Bowls, the big three were John Elway, Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe.

As the Broncos (3-0) get ready for Monday night's game in Baltimore, the Ravens (0-2) will have to deal with a different kind of three-headed monster.

Never heard of Broncos linebackers Al Wilson, John Mobley and Ian Gold? That could change soon, because they are the key to what is fast becoming one of the NFL's best defenses.

And fast is the key adjective when discussing the Mile High City's Three Musketeers.

"The three of them together, collectively and individually, are probably as athletic and run as well as any linebackers in the league," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, who has had a few choice linebackers of his own.

Wilson, the fiery middle man, has been clocked at 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Mobley, who this season moved from weak-side to strong-side linebacker, runs a swift 4.5. Gold, the first-year starter who made bad boy Bill Romanowski expendable, has run a sub-4.4.

Denver's defense - ranked No. 1 against the run (47.3 yards a game) - operates much like the Ravens' great Super Bowl defense of two seasons ago. The front four, featuring beefy tackles Chester McGlockton and former Raven Lional Dalton, plug holes, tie up blockers and allow the linebackers to run relatively free.

"It all starts with the big boys up front," Wilson said. "We might make the tackles, but they make the tackles possible."

Wilson leads the team with 32 tackles, followed by Mobley (31) and Gold (30). Veteran backup linebacker Keith Burns said that each linebacker brings something different to the field.

"John has great instincts and the athletic ability to go after the ball," Burns said. " ... Al's the aggressive one, with all that enthusiasm in the middle. Ian's got that youthful enthusiasm, and he stings people with his hits."

When it comes to star power, perhaps Gold has the chance to shine the brightest. The third-year player from Michigan made the Pro Bowl last year as the AFC's special teams player. He was so aggressive and reckless on kick coverage that his teammates began calling him "Crash Test Dummy." Now that he's a starter, linebackers coach Larry Coyer calls Gold something else.

"He's a heat-seeking missile," Coyer said.

One thing the Broncos' linebackers are not is big. Wilson is a solid 6 feet, 240 pounds, but Mobley is only 6-1, 236 and Gold is listed at 6-0, 223. He might actually be closer to 215.

That lack of bulk could prove problematic if the Broncos confront a power running game. Then again, there was another group of fast, undersized Denver linebackers that did just fine. Twenty-five years ago, Denver's first Super Bowl team was anchored by the Orange Crush defense, which operated a 3-4 alignment featuring the talents of linebackers Tom Jackson and Bob Swenson on the outside and Randy Gradishar and Joe Rizzo on the inside.

"They play the way we played," Swenson said. "Fast and all out. They remind me of a bunch of little Tommy Jacksons running around out there."

Jackson, now a football analyst for ESPN, agreed.

"They all in some ways remind me of me," he said. "Not oversized. If anything, undersized a little bit. But they're tenacious."

Gold said that speed, athleticism and aggressiveness are important. But he pointed out something else that is just as vital.

"It's the chemistry," he said. "When you have three linebackers playing together, they have to be cohesive, and they all have to be on the same page. I think that makes the whole defense run a lot faster. We are able to race to the football. There's an enthusiasm on this defense now."

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