ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has a theory about young players that he believes can make the difference between a team getting over the hurdles or not in an average NFL season.
“You’ve got to get your young guys ready to play, you have to challenge them in practice, you have to be willing to get the right people and play them in games,’’ Kubiak said. “They have to earn that with how they practice, how they handle their business. But if you think you can just sit your young guys on the side and they’re going to be ready to go when you need them, you’re going to be disappointed and you’re going to get beat.’’
The Broncos have touted their depth in the league’s No. 1 defense all season. They’ve touted their ability to give Pro Bowl players a series off here and there, because the other guys on the depth chart could make it work.
The defense will get its sternest test of the season Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, when the Broncos will be without not one, but two Pro Bowl selections on defense.
Cornerback Aqib Talib, who leads the Broncos and is tied for fifth in the league with three interceptions, is suspended for Sunday’s game for poking Indianapolis Colts tight end Dwayne Allen in the eye in the closing minutes of the Broncos’ loss last weekend.
The Broncos will also be without outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who will miss this game and possibly several others with a back injury. Ware leads the Broncos (and is sixth in the league) with 6.5 sacks. For defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, it certainly isn’t the first time he’s had to plan for a starter’s absence in a career that has almost reached four decades in the NFL. It isn’t even the first time this season.
Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward was suspended for the season opener for a violation of the league’s personal conduct policy while defensive end Derek Wolfe missed four games to open the season for a violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
“We've had different guys out at different times -- T.J. was out, Wolfe was out four games,’’ Phillips said. “That's what you have to do in this league. You don't want, obviously, your Pro Bowl players out, but it happens. We've got to step forward. We've had guys that have played, though, in those positions, which helps us.’’
For the Broncos, that means Bradley Roby, their first-round pick in the 2014 draft, will start in Talib’s spot. And Shaquil Barrett, a revelation for the Broncos as he has made the jump from practice-squad guy for much of last season to key rotational player in the league’s top defense, will start in Ware’s outside linebacker spot.
Overall on defense this season, the Broncos have tried to use any and all opportunities to position themselves to not just have depth, but to play like they have depth when the starters aren’t in the game. And Phillips has essentially used the "if you have a uniform on, you play" approach all season.
“We’ve got depth, but it's hard to replace those impact guys,’’ said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "I mean you have a guy like Talib and a guy like D-Ware -- even though our backups are pretty good, those guys are impact players, A-plus players. When you lose your A-plus players, you just need those backups to come in and do their job, do their role.’’
So far this season, the Broncos have gotten enough people into the action that 12 different players have contributed at least half of a sack to the Broncos’ league-leading total of 30 sacks, and 16 players have played at least 183 snaps, or 33 percent of the defense’s total.
The Broncos will need any and all of those players against the Chiefs, who have had a bye week to get ready for the Denver defense.
“It's a championship game, that's how I approach every division game --- like a championship,’’ Harris said. “That's the mindset I take in. If we play the Raiders, Chargers or Chiefs -- championship game. That's a reason why we've been able to win the AFC West almost every year since I've been here.’’