Denver Broncos' defensive line earned every chip on every shoulder

Broncos defensive lineman DeShawn Williams leads his teammates in celebration following an interception against the Patriots. Billie Weiss/Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Maybe they just don't take a hint, maybe they didn't get the memo or maybe they are collectively the most stubborn, optimistic, keep-on-dreaming group of players at any position on any team in the NFL.

The defensive linemen the Denver Broncos have played this season have been released or waived a combined 28 times.

In a season filled with injuries, as well as coaching and roster adjustments made due to COVID-19, Broncos coach Vic Fangio likes to see all of those chips on all of those shoulders.

"It definitely needs to be part of your defense," Fangio said. "You want guys playing with a chip on their shoulder at all times, whether they have a great reason to have a chip on their shoulder or not. Intensity, effort, physical-ness is really important to playing good defense. ... It can be contagious to everybody else."

When outside linebacker Von Miller injured his ankle in the days before the season opener, the Broncos shoved aside many of their defensive plans. But the position most impacted in the weeks that followed Miller's season-changing trip to the surgeon was the defensive line.

First, Jurrell Casey went to injured reserve (biceps). Then Mike Purcell went to injured reserve (foot). Then Shelby Harris went to COVID-19/reserve after close contact with someone who had tested positive.

That is the entire Broncos starting defensive line from Week 1. Casey hasn't played since Week 3, Purcell not since Week 6 and Harris hasn't played since Week 7.

In their place the Broncos have rotated a collection of their own recent draft picks -- Dre'Mont Jones, McTelvin Agim and DeMarcus Walker -- to go with and Sylvester Williams, two players who have been waived or released a combined 12 times in recent seasons.

DeShawn Williams, who had a diving interception against the New England Patriots, waited, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, more than 1,300 days in between regular-season game appearances before he played in the Broncos' Week 3 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He leads Denver's interior linemen with 20 tackles this season.

"I'm big on if you work hard, something good is going to come out of it," DeShawn Williams said. "I'm a true testament to just working hard. Football I think is just my calling. God gives people a lot of talent, and me, I'm not the tallest, I'm not the biggest. I'm 6-1, 290 [pounds], but somehow when I get on the field I do something to contribute for the team and it shows."

Sylvester Williams' story is different, but in some ways the same. He was a first-round pick by the Broncos (28th overall in 2013) and started Super Bowl 50 for the team. But after not getting re-signed following the 2017 season he was released by four different teams before finding his way back to Denver's practice squad earlier this season.

"This game of football has done a lot for me in my life," said Sylvester Williams. "It's put me in a lot of great positions, and it's blessed me a lot. When looking at the option of walking away from the game or continue playing, I felt like I still had something to give to the game. Given that the game has given me so much, I didn't want to walk away and look back and feel like I could have kept playing and left too early."

The Broncos, whose run defense has suffered since Purcell was injured, believed so much in what they have seen from Purcell over the past two years they signed him to a three-year contract extension earlier this season. The Broncos have surrendered more than 200 yards rushing in two of the three games he has missed.

Through it all the Broncos have tried to hang in defensively, having been as high as eighth in the league rankings four weeks ago. But with an offense that now leads the league in turnovers, they are now 17th in total defense and 27th in scoring defense headed into Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS).

In the midst of an injury-riddled 3-6 season, having players who have pushed through tough times can help.

"Hard work doesn't go unnoticed, but during those periods of time it felt like I keep working hard and coaches keep saying the same thing and I keep getting cut," DeShawn Williams said. "It's like, is the hard work really being paid off? I think now it is coming tenfold right now, and I'm just thankful and blessed to have this opportunity."