Through the first seven games of the year, the Broncos defense had been blessed with relatively good health; aside from defensive end Courtney Brown’s knee problems that ended his season before it began, Denver’s defenders had only missed a game here and there.
Then came a game that would claim a multitude of Broncos to the bane of a footballer’s existence. One by one, Brandon, Ebenezer Ekuban, Patrick Chukwurah, Ian Gold, Nick Ferguson, John Lynch and Darrent Williams all hobbled from the field during a Nov. 5 win at Pittsburgh.
“I don’t think I can ever remember losing as many guys on one side of the football,” Head Coach Mike Shanahan said.
All but Brandon would be back within two games. The fifth-year safety, however, left Heinz Field on the back of a cart after colliding with Demetrin Veal during the fourth quarter.
“You could see it happen right in front of you,” Shanahan said the day after the injury. “It was just a freak injury and it’s really a shame, because he (had) really been playing well.”
“I felt the play, so I know what happened,” Brandon said at the time. “I could feel it. It was pretty painful.”
For the Broncos, it forced them to recalibrate their secondary. Curome Cox rose into Brandon’s “big-nickel” role, and then became a starter when Ferguson’s season ended two weeks later with a knee injury. By December, Domonique Foxworth was starting at strong safety, with Cox seeing substantial action as a fifth defensive back. They held their own.
But for Brandon, the injury was a crushing blow to what had been a promising season. A year earlier, his coaches concocted the “big nickel,” bringing the safety Brandon in as a fifth defensive back rather than using a third cornerback as is the standard for nickel packages. The strategy worked to perfection as the scheme helped defuse some star tight ends like San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez.
Brandon’s first three NFL seasons witnessed him alternately gaining and losing traction in his bid for playing time; the “big nickel” offered him a clearly defined role, which he embraced this season.
“It’s mine, really. That’s what I want to say,” Brandon said in training camp. “I feel like it’s mine, so I’m real comfortable.”
Whether Brandon finds that comfort level upon his return is unknown, simply by the nature of the injury he incurred. Some players with surgically repaired ACLs regain their previous capabilities almost as soon as they step onto the field, as wide receiver Javon Walker and Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer did this past season. Others can take a year longer to regain their form, like Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis.
There’s no way of knowing until the contact work of training camp arrives in just over six months.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Finished the season with 15 total tackles — nine solo and six assists … In that fateful Steelers game, Brandon filled in for an injured Nick Ferguson and logged three tackles while forcing two fumbles (one on special teams ) … No tight ends scored touchdowns against the Broncos during the eight games in which Brandon played. (Antonio Gates’ two touchdowns against the Broncos at San Diego in December were the only ones by any tight ends against Denver all year.)
NEXT: Linebacker Keith Burns.