ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — All of a sudden, the Broncos are shorthanded.
“Sometimes this happens,” outside linebacker Jacob Martin said. “This takes you back to the covid days.”
The Broncos’ outside linebackers’ room has been shattered.
Star linebacker Bradley Chubb was traded away last week. Baron Browning is out with a hip injury. Randy Gregory still isn’t back from his knee injury. Aaron Patrick and Christopher Allen are done for the season with torn ACLs. Rookie Nik Bonitto and practice squad-er Jonathan Kongbo missed practice this week with illnesses. Bonitto is questionable to return in time for the game.
“We had nine guys at the start of this thing,” Jonathan Cooper said. “It’s crazy.”
Cooper, a former seventh-round pick in his second season, will be a key piece this week. Jacob Martin, who the Broncos traded for last week, will be right there with him. The final healthy option is Zach McCloud, a rookie who joined the Broncos’ practice squad a week ago.
(McCloud saw snow for the first time last week. His mom, who has never seen snow in her life, was beside herself when he told her. She won’t be able to make the trip up from Southern Florida to Nashville to watch her son this weekend if he makes his debut.)
To Martin, the situation feels familiar.
Martin was traded to the Texans a week before the start of the 2019 season. A couple of injuries hit the outside linebackers, and only Martin, Barkevious Mingo and Whitney Mercilus were available.
Now, a week after being traded to the Broncos, there’s a chance he’ll make another debut with only two other available options.
“It’s the NFL, man,” he said. “There’s not much you can do but just thug it out.”
Of all the weeks to be shorthanded at outside linebacker, this is a bad one. The Broncos are taking on the Tennessee Titans, who are led by All-Pro running back and multi-time NFL rushing yards and touchdowns leader Derrick Henry. At 6-foot-3 and nearly 250 pounds, Henry is a beast to bring down.
Martin knows all about Henry. He’s played him six times.
“Honestly, that’s probably one of my favorite teams to play, Tennessee,” Martin said. “I love playing against the Titans. It takes you back to those high school dog days, those college dog days of playing a smashmouth football team.”
With a couple of new faces potentially in the rotation for the Broncos, it doesn’t hurt to have a simple game plan. Against the Titans, the game plan is one of the simplest in the NFL.
“You know what you’re going to get: it’s gonna be a smashmouth, downhill running game,” Martin said. “In my opinion, it takes no talent (to stop them). It takes discipline and toughness, not getting tired of doing your job over and over and over again. If you continue to do that, you can eliminate the running game.”
The grind of playing the running game play after play, especially against Henry, takes a toll. With only three linebackers in the rotation, that toll is even tougher to bear.
“Hopefully, they’ve got some air on the sideline,” Jonathan Cooper said. “There’s not much you can do but sit down when you can.”
The Broncos have played 552 plays of defense this season and outside linebackers have registered 1,082 snaps. That means the Broncos have, on average, played 1.96 outside linebackers on each play.
Denver has rotated outside linebackers heavily. Chubb played in 74% of the snaps this season. The Broncos’ other starter, Randy Gregory, hit the 70% mark once in three healthy games. With three linebackers available, something like a 75%-75%-50% split or a balanced 67%-67%-67% split would both be heavy workloads.
“The only thing that can help you is preparing during the week, making sure you’re getting your rest, hydrating and stuff like that,” Cooper said. “That’s what I’ve been doing so I feel like I’ll be alright.”
Coming off of a bye week helps, but Jonathan Cooper isn’t as well-rested as you might expect.
“I was just rocking the single dad life,” Cooper said.
Cooper went home to Columbus, Ohio for five days during the bye week. His 1-year-old son stayed with him. He rested when he could, but he was on his son’s schedule. Cooper isn’t going to complain about spending rare time with his son during football season.
“It’s actually very hard being away,” Cooper said. “I always want to be home with my kid. It gets tough. I tell myself everything I’m doing out here is for him. I’m working my tail off, showing up to work every day and grinding for his future. That’s the one thing that keeps me going.”
With the status of the outside linebackers’ room up in the air, Cooper could be in line for a huge opportunity on Sunday.
“This defensive coaching staff and my teammates around me, they’re counting on me,” Cooper said. “You want to make sure you’re on top of your game and that you’re dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s. That’s my focus. I’m working hard every single day. I’m gonna make the most of my opportunity.”