ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -The Denver Broncos were about to go down for the count when rocket-armed quarterback Jay Cutler came to the rescue along with a most unlikely sidekick - an undrafted, undersized and largely unknown rookie linebacker named Wesley Woodyard.
Things looked bleak for the Broncos when D.J. Williams, fresh off signing a six-year, $32 million contract that solidified his standing as Denver's defensive leader, went down with a knee injury on Nov. 2.
Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey had just chewed out his teammates for lacking a nasty attitude and the bungling Broncos were sitting ugly at 4-4 with a three-game losing streak.
The injury-riddled Broncos, who had already lost strongside linebacker Boss Bailey for the year and would lose middle linebacker Nate Webster the following week, turned to a free agent from the University of Kentucky who is generously listed at 230 pounds and was ignored in the draft because he's too small.
Or so everybody thought.
ckles in his five starts on the weak side, leading Denver (8-5) to the brink of a playoff berth with four wins in five weeks.
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, whose Panthers (10-3) host the Broncos on Sunday, said he's impressed with Denver's entire makeshift defense - but one guy stands out above the rest.
``I'll tell you what, the more film you watch ... Woodyard keeps on making plays, especially the last couple of weeks,'' Delhomme said.
Two weeks ago, Woodyard had 13 tackles, 11 of them solo, and forced a fumble by Brett Favre in Denver's statement win over the New York Jets. Against Kansas City last week, he led the team with eight solo tackles and broke up a pass in another crucial win.
``Wesley's one of those things you call a diamond in the rough,'' teammate Kenny Peterson said Wednesday. ``He's 200-what?
Two-hundred-30 pounds.
``Oh?'' Peterson reacted, surprised. ``I was going to say 210 soaking wet with two jogging suits on.
``But he hits like a 280-pound guy.''
Williams is inching his way back to health, and that begs the question: How can the Broncos possibly take Woodyard out of the lineup when Williams returns?
``Yeah, he's a playmaker,'' coach Mike Shanahan said. ``We'll try to keep him out there as much as we can. He's fun to watch, both on defense and special teams.''
n December, though.
``If he keeps playing like that, they'll find a way to keep him on the field,'' cornerback Dre' Bly said.
One possibility is keeping Woodyard where he is and moving Williams back to the middle.
Woodyard said he's ready for a reduced role if that's what it comes to.
``D.J.'s the captain of our defense. You've got to give all respect to him. I'm ready to accept my role on the team like I did in the preseason,'' Woodyard said. ``I'm going to be a playmaker whether on special teams or defense.''
The way Woodyard sees it, the more depth at his position, the better.
``Once we get D.J. back, we're going to have a lot more playmakers on our team,'' he said. ``I'm just going to earn my respect every week from the guys on the team and the guys in the NFL.''
He can check those off his to-do list.
``I play with about 10 or 20 chips on my shoulder,'' Woodyard said. ``I've always been looked at as a little guy. I've always been small since I was little, so I'm used to playing bigger than I really am.''
So, just how did a player of Woodyard's stature slip through the cracks on draft weekend?
``I can't answer that question,'' Shanahan said. ``Why did Rod Smith go undrafted? Why was Terrell Davis in the sixth round? Why was Shannon Sharpe in the seventh round? Karl Mecklenburg (a 12th-rounder). You can go on and on. You don't know for sure the size of the guy's heart, but I'm sure glad we got him.''

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