ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Aside from Von Miller, Denver’s once-deep linebacker corps has been reduced to four guys playing their first NFL season and an undrafted third-year pro who’s started just five games.
Steven Johnson, who at 26 qualifies as the greybeard among greenhorns, swears he isn’t concerned.
“I don’t think there’s any drop-off, because I look at all these guys over here, and they’ve got that hunger in their eye, just like I got,” Johnson said. “Because all of us at the beginning of the year weren’t starters, but now we’re out there starting and the team is counting on us. We’re kind of relishing that opportunity.
“I guarantee you on Monday you’re going to see some linebackers flying around, just like, ‘What in the world?’ You know what I mean? That’s just the attitude we’re taking. We’re ready to go.”
The Broncos (11-3) can clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win at Cincinnati (9-4-1) Monday night. They’ll try to do that without three front-line linebackers: Danny Trevathan, Nate Irving and Brandon Marshall.
Losing Marshall until the playoffs with a sprained right foot and the two others to season-ending knee injuries “puts the onus on the front, especially in the run game to make sure we’re doing our job plus a little bit more,” nose tackle Terrance Knighton said.
Rookie Todd Davis, whom Denver claimed off waivers from New Orleans last month, is expected to lead the way, along with Johnson as the Broncos try to stuff Bengals running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.
Also prepping for increased roles are rookies Corey Nelson and Lamin Barrow and second-year pro Lerentee McCray, who spent his rookie year on IR.
“Our coaches put together a good plan where Todd’s not going to be out there on his own,” Knighton said. “He’s not going to have to make every play. You have two veteran safeties (in Rahim Moore and T.J. Ward) back there behind him and you have two veteran guys in front of him with me and Derek Wolfe.
“So, our linebackers will be well-protected — but they’re not going to be in a position where they dictate the game. Our defense as a whole dictates the game.”
The Broncos sport the NFL’s fourth-rated defense and they’re second only to Detroit at stopping the run. But they’ll be without their top tackler in Marshall and last year’s leading tackler in Trevathan, both of whom were hurt last week.
Marshall said he’s confident the young linebackers will hold up until he gets back.
“I believe in all those guys,” he said.
Johnson went a step further, saying, “A lot of people think we’re a little depleted at linebacker but I don’t think so at all. So we’re going to go out there and it’s not going to be any drop-off. We’re going to go out there and fight like we usually do.”
Asked just how realistic of an expectation that was with all the injuries, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had this to say Friday: “I take whoever we have up and available and coach them up to be at their best and we expect them to play at a high standard. That’s the way we approached it last year, when we fought through (injuries to) a bunch of different guys. And we never make excuses.”
Marshall would be the biggest beneficiary of a first-round bye.
“I’ve never had a foot sprain, a mid-foot sprain. So, I don’t think it will just come back 100 percent. But I think with the taping and the orthotic, it’ll definitely help,” Marshall said.
Notes: Knighton was named the recipient of the eighth annual Darrent Williams Good Guy Award as selected by Denver media for his accountability. “I’m just happy to win something for once. Obviously, there’s been a lot of talk about me talking about me winning other things,” said Knighton, who proclaimed last weekend that the Broncos would beat the Patriots in the playoffs even if they have to go on the road to do it. … The Broncos said Peyton Manning (thigh) was limited at practice again Friday. He was moving around well during the 20-minute media access period. “I haven’t seen any cause for concern,” WR Emmanuel Sanders said. “He had a really good day of practice today.”
By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
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