Wilson matures into true leader of Denver's defense

Updated: November 4, 2003, 8:35 AM ET
ESPN

DENVER -- Al Wilson splits two blockers and arrives like a bulldozer the instant after the ball lands in the running back's hands. He jumps up, looks down at his dazed opponent and lets out a long "Whooooo!" while sticking his arms out to the side.

The big hit is nothing new, but the celebration is more subdued than in years past. More mature and with a better understanding of his role as the leader of Denver's defense, Wilson now realizes he doesn't have to seek attention to get it.

"My maturity level has definitely stepped up," Wilson said. "It's amazing. Guys tell me all the time that I'm totally different than I was last year because I understand when you get a little older you can't do the things that you used to do. Now I'm just having fun and enjoying the game for what it is, which is a game."

Wilson has always been a hard hitter. He led the Broncos with 199 tackles last season, the most since Randy Gradishar had 224 in 1983. He also is the undisputed leader of Denver's defense, a two-time Pro Bowler unafraid to get in teammates' faces for slacking off.

Still, something was missing.

Wilson didn't realize what it was until new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer challenged him in the offseason.

"In the past, I really wasn't accountable for the things that I did and I was just being Al, acting the fool," Wilson said. "It took Larry challenging me in the minicamps in front of the entire defense to go out and be the best middle linebacker in the NFL. I took that challenge personal and I'm just trying to live up to it."

It's working so far.

Wilson is having the best season of his five-year career. He leads the Broncos with 83 tackles -- 37 more than linebacker John Mobley -- and has held together a defense wracked by injuries.

More than that, Wilson has realized being a leader is more than just big hits and talking a good game. Whether it's working with younger players, fulfilling his obligations with the media or keeping things calm in the huddle, Wilson has become a true professional.

"The biggest compliment I can give that man is that he has matured," Coyer said. "That man truly has matured. It's been amazing to see the difference in him."

It couldn't have come at a better time.

Wilson, Ian Gold and John Mobley made up one of the league's best linebacking trios, a group that closed fast and hit hard. But Gold is out for the season after he tore a knee ligament Oct. 12 against Pittsburgh, and Mobley is out indefinitely after a neck injury last week against Baltimore.

That means Wilson is playing next to Jashon Sykes and Donnie Spragan, two young players who had never started before this season.

"It's definitely more important now for me to go out and exemplify some leadership, because guys like Jashon and Donnie really haven't been in there and they're going to be looking for me to help them out on Sundays," Wilson said. "I'm going to have to be on top of my game and make sure they're in the right spots at the right time."

Instead of seeking out big hits as he did in the past, Wilson has concentrated more on his responsibilities and tackling. Oddly, the result has been more big hits than ever.

Two or three times in just about every game this season, Wilson has shot through a gap and sent a ball carrier head over heels. Last week against Baltimore, he saved a touchdown by hitting Todd Heap so hard the ball went one way and the tight end's helmet went another.

"One thing I've learned this season is that if you play football the way it's supposed to be played, the big hits will come," Wilson said.

So will the recognition.

Wilson has never gotten the kind of media attention given to players such as Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, but he's getting what he wants most: respect from his peers.

"I think people in the league know who he is," New England guard Damien Woody said. "I know the guys in this locker room know he's a really good football player and we're definitely not overlooking him."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index