Hampered by a neck injury, the Denver Broncos’ emotional leader hasn’t practiced in weeks and was ruled out for the first-round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still, Dawkins will be heard, even if it’s screaming from the sideline instead of barking out the calls.
His voice has already energized the Broncos (8-8) after Dawkins delivered a rare speech following a 7-3 loss to Kansas City last week. He emphatically urged his teammates to forget about backing into the AFC West crown and fervently focus on the Steelers (12-4).
“He’ll be effective, one way or another,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “He’s the leader of this team.”
Pittsburgh is without one of its top safeties as well. Ryan Clark is sitting out as a precaution because of a blood disorder that’s exacerbated by altitude.
Dawkins’ loss is a blow to a team that lacks much playoff experience.
Rookie Quinton Carter will play free safety while third-year player David Bruton once again fills in for Dawkins, provided, of course, he’s healthy. Bruton is listed as questionable with an aching Achilles that’s bothered him for weeks.
Sure, those two younger safeties are far more spry than the 38-year-old Dawkins, but they don’t have anywhere near his level of recognition, something Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will try to exploit.
“I don’t know if anybody fills the void of (Dawkins’) leadership and his ability to get us excited about playing,” Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “Brian’s been an outstanding player for a long time. Any time you lose that type of player, it hurts.”
Dawkins has been sorely missed ever since he pinched a nerve in his neck in the Broncos’ last win, against Chicago on Dec. 11. He’s been sidelined for all but one quarter of the past three games, all losses.
“He’s a guy that comes down and stops the run and always seems to make the play,” Roethlisberger said. “When you turn on the film, 20 is always in there.”