Sylvester Williams is important for fortunes of Broncos’ defensive front

Like an old friend returning home to make good again, Sylvester Williams’ second-coming in Denver is important for the defensive front over the last half of 2020.

Williams, the Broncos’ first-round pick in 2013, played his first four seasons in Denver. Now, the Broncos need him to help re-stabilize a defensive front ravaged by season-ending injuries (Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell) and COVID issues (Shelby Harris, who won’t play Sunday in Las Vegas).

“Sly is a guy who’s been a player in this league — high pick, played here, played for other teams (with the Titans, Lions Dolphins and Chargers),” Broncos head coach Vic Fangio said. “He’s loving his second opportunity to come back here. I know the guys enjoy him, the coaches enjoy him, and he’s making the most of it.”

Signed to the practice squad Oct. 3 and promoted to the active roster Oct. 17, Williams has played in three games, with two tackles and a pass deflection in 63 total defensive snaps. As valuable run-stuffing depth, he’s now the Broncos’ secondary nose guard behind DeShawn Williams, who started both games at the position following Purcell’s foot injury in Week 7.

Sylvester Williams’ return to relevance in Denver this year is the latest twist in his against-the-odds football career, which didn’t begin until his senior year in high school, when he started just one game. After high school, the sport wasn’t even on his mind as Williams went to work at a manufacturing plant, building radiators.

But just as Williams capitalized on the opportunities in front of him then — first as a walk-on at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College after quitting his job, then on scholarship at North Carolina — he’s done the same as a veteran amid an unprecedented, coronavirus-impacted NFL season. That meant taking advantage of 2020’s expanded practice squads, with teams now able to carry up to six vested veterans.

“This summer I stayed in shape and stayed sharp mentally, and I honestly didn’t know about the practice squad situation until roster cuts started happening and I saw some veterans signed to the practice squad,” Williams said. “It kind of threw me off a little bit, but once I got updated to what’s going on, I thought it was a unique opportunity (to extend my career).”

In his four seasons with Denver from 2013-16, Williams accrued 93 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks in 60 games. He was especially productive in his final two seasons, starting 15 games during the Broncos’ Super Bowl run in 2015 and then all 16 games the next year before departing in free agency for Tennessee.

And while things have certainly changed in the time Williams was gone — the only other defensive player left from the Super Bowl 50 team is injured linebacker Von Miller — DeShawn Williams, Dre’Mont Jones and DeMarcus Walker all realize the well of knowledge they have to draw from in the 31-year-old.

“I talk to him every day about that (2015) defense because I want to pick his brain and see what we can do as a defense to do more and help our team win,” DeShawn Williams said. “We all know in 2015 the offense wasn’t too great but the defense somehow, some way, pulled out wins. So, we’re just trying to see how we can do that, too. I pick (Sylvester’s) brain each and every time in the room.”

Heading into Sunday’s game in Las Vegas, Sylvester Williams — who cited Oakland as his favorite place to play — is ready to anchor a “dog fight” in the trenches against the Raiders’ ninth-ranked rushing attack (131.3 rushing yards per game) that features high-power tailback Josh Jacobs.

“They’re going to come out and run the ball and they have a tendency to want to be physical, so it’s a challenge for the D-line,” Williams said. “As a D-lineman, you have to look forward to that challenge, because their (offensive) line is coming in at an average weight of 340 pounds. We have to go to work.”

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