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Knighton Rises Into Leadership Role

Posted Jan 10, 2014

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at what defense tackle Terrance Knighton brings to the team.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When the Broncos signed Terrance Knighton, they thought they were getting north of 320 pounds worth of gap-clogging mass who also happened to possess an array of moves and unusually light feet for a man his size.

They got all that, and then some. But it turned out that they were getting a leader, too.

Little was made of Knighton's leadership qualities in Jacksonville, perhaps because of the Jaguars' overall struggles and the team's de-emphasis of him in 2012, his only full season without Jack Del Rio as one of his bosses.

"Terrance has had a great, I would call it a bounce-back year," Del Rio said. "I think he’s comfortable here, understands what is expected of him and is doing a great job of leading that group and communicating."

And no one brought leadership and communication out of Knighton like the Broncos' 2013 first-round pick, Sylvester Williams.

In the offseason, when Knighton and Kevin Vickerson worked together as the expected starting defensive tackle duo, they met as equals. They began getting to know each other in March when they crossed paths, each at the verge of signing their contracts. They worked on their communication over the months that followed, and by November, each knew the other almost as well as he knew himself.

Then Vickerson injured his hip, and his season ended.

From April through November, Sylvester Williams had been learning from his more experienced brethren. But with Vickerson's year over, the lessons took on an added urgency: the rookie would have a greater first-year burden than anyone expected.

Communication between the two defensive tackles is crucial, and while it's not perfect, "it's getting there," Knighton said.

"Because even though Sly wasn't starting this year, he did a good job of watching me and Vick. He listened a lot; he paid attention. So the initial (shock) of him jumping into the starting lineup was going to be tough, but he's handled it well.

"When you're drafted that high and you're expected to play, you've got to respond, and he's done a good job of that. I don't have any doubt of anything he can't do. When I'm tired, I don't have any problem telling him to go in, and vice versa. I've built that trust with him that quick."

Added Del Rio: "It’s been invaluable for him to have Terrance right there, able to talk with him and explain to him, share things with him and really help bring him along."

 Williams concurred.

"(Knighton) helped me a lot, pretty much just teaching me the techniques and ways to treat the schemes and different things like that," Williams said. "He’s like a big brother to me, he took me along the way and helped me out a lot.”

Other leaders, like Champ Bailey, the Broncos' longest-tenured player and captain, noticed.

“Tremendous," Bailey said of Knighton's growth as a leader. "I didn’t know him before he got here, but just to be able to come in and figure out where he fits in and know his role, but also understand that he’s a leader on this team. And we need him to be that."

That's what he tried to be when he talked to his fellow defenders after the 27-20 loss to San Diego on Dec. 12. Knighton and others and been perplexed over the defense's struggles to that point. But that loss was different. The ease with which the Chargers ran to the outside, their success on third downs, all of it left Knighton and others feeling worse than at any point to date this season.

"It was immediate frustration," Knighton said. "After the second Charger game, I pulled the whole defense aside and said, 'Look, we've got to figure it out. It's too late in the season to still be trying to feel our way through things. Relying on the offense, or whatever it is, we have to find something, and we have to do our part.'

"The group responded. Guys had a chance to air their feelings out and say how they felt guys were playing. Nobody took anything personal. It showed against Houston, it showed against Oakland. The feeling I get right now for the defense, is that we're ready to play our best football."

It has in the last two games. Although the competition wasn't as difficult as it was at some stretches of the season, the defense twice held opponents below 20 points -- something it had only done once in Weeks 1-15. Williams had three tackles for losses, a sack and a fumble recovery in the last two games of the regular season. Knighton continues to use his balance to win one-on-one duels and draw extra attention from interior blockers, opening lanes through which Williams and others can attack.

Williams' improvement since the loss to the Chargers is not a coincidence.

"After the last time we played San Diego, I pulled him aside and I told him, 'Me and you are going to have to start doing extra,'" Knighton said. "'The things that me and (Vickerson) did during OTAs and camp to prepare ourselves for the season to develop that bond, we're going to have to find that quicker.'

"So we find time outside of the facility, on our days off. I like to see what he sees on film, and he likes to see what I see. Me playing a lot of football, I just try to simplify it for him, and just help him out as much as I can."

Without Miller and Derek Wolfe in recent weeks, this is where the Broncos must break down an opposing offense: from the inside out. Knighton isn't simply at the heart of that task: he is the heart, of that work, and the defensive line, as well.

"'T-Knight’ should have made the Pro Bowl," Bailey said.

He didn't, but if the Broncos get to a better Bowl, Knighton -- and his ability of the "big brother" to help extract the most from the young Williams -- will be a massive reason why.

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