ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Apparently it takes a village to raise a defense, because the Denver Broncos have mix-and-matched their way through the season’s first two games using just about every defensive player they have in uniform.
The Broncos have scored two touchdowns on defense, they are No. 2 in the league in total defense and they have flashed upper-tier versatility as well as team speed along the way. They have also kept defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ promise that if a player showed the ability to fill a role, then fill that role is what the player would be asked to do.
“We want to use everybody, we’re going to need everybody," is how Phillips put it.
The Broncos have flaunted their defensive depth at times as they have rotated even some of their marquee players in and out of the lineup in the first two games. And while the results have mostly been top shelf -- Jamaal Charles’ 34-yard touchdown run was a notable exception last Thursday night with a smattering of Broncos regulars having been subbed out for the play – the Broncos say they have tried to take a big-picture approach.
That the more people who can contribute the better and the team will be better positioned late in the season or if some injuries come their way in the coming weeks.
But thus far the Broncos have had 17 players on defense who have been on the field for at least 23 percent of the snaps, with the spectrum from outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (23 percent) to safety Darian Stewart (96.7 percent). And things could certainly change as the season wears on this time around, but by comparison when the Broncos had finished the 2014 season they had 14 players on defense who played at least 23 percent of the team’s snaps.
“We're really deep on that side of the ball," said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak.
The Broncos are still without defensive end Derek Wolfe, who has two games remaining on his four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. If his conditioning is where the Broncos would like it to be after a month away from the team Wolfe figures to quickly enter the defensive line’s rotation when he returns.
And defensive end Kenny Anunike returned to practice this week, his first significant on-field work since he had arthroscopic knee surgery during training camp.
“Derek will be back in two weeks, so that's very encouraging, Kenny was playing really well in preseason, we were counting on him big time," Kubiak said. “ … Now you start to have problems of who you're suiting up. That's a nice problem to have. We have not had that problem up until this point."
In that mix as well is the Broncos desire to manage the snaps of their primary pass rushers -- DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Last season, with the Broncos’ in a 4-3 scheme that had Ware at defensive end and wrestling with bigger offensive tackles on most every down, Ware’s 739 snaps were the most among the team’s defensive linemen.
The feeling was he wore down as the season progressed with that workload as he had just two his 10.5 sacks on the season over the season’s last eight games. He did not have a sack in the final four games of the regular season.
Miller is less than two years out from ACL surgery and the Broncos would like to manage his snap count at least some as well. This year he’s at 77 percent of the team’s snaps after two games while overall in 2014 he played 85 percent of the team’s plays.
“I think it will keep guys fresh," Ware said. “We have guys that will go in there and do the job. It’s about making plays now and making plays in November, December and January, all the way through."
As a result the Broncos have already played rookie Shane Ray and Barrett together in the two outside linebacker spots in key game situations.
“You want them to feel like they can put you in when they want to," Ray said. “ … When you’re on the field, you want to make plays."
In the secondary, with safety T.J. Ward having missed the opener because of a one-game suspension for violating the league’s conduct policy, the Broncos have had six players – Stewart, Ward, Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, David Bruton Jr., Bradley Roby -- play at least 43 percent of the team’s snaps.
“Everybody can play," Harris said. “If you’re in there, everybody expects you to get it done. That’s out approach. We got 14 games to go in the season and then hopefully the playoffs, so everybody’s got to play. And really the big thing is that everybody gets themselves ready to play every week. That means doing what you’re supposed to do."