EDITOR'S NOTE: The following was the cover story in the Gameday program from Dec. 12, when the Broncos played the San Diego Chargers.
He played in the bitter, northeastern cold in high school and college. He played in the warm, Florida sun for the first four years of his NFL career in Jacksonville.
He has played for teams that have won and for teams that haven’t.
The 2013 season marks his fifth in the NFL and his fifth as a starting defensive tackle.
But more important than the action he’s seen in his career is the action he’s retained, revisited and redistributed to his teammates.
“I’ve played a lot of football – this being my fifth year,” Knighton said. “And going through the ups and downs of being on an OK team and a bad team, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been through a lot. I think just because of the high volume of plays I’ve played in this league, I have a lot of knowledge.
“I’m just trying to pass it on and make everyone else better.”
SHARING THE WEALTH (OF KNOWLEDGE)
Knighton says his greatest strength as a football player is his knowledge of the game -- and his teammates wholeheartedly agree.
“He’s a smart veteran, and I think that’s why he’s such a good player just because of how smart he is on the field,” defensive tackle
“Just knowledge of the game, that might be his best attribute,” Vickerson said, adding that Knighton’s football IQ is “really high.” “He studies and he knows.”
That studying has led him to more than 100 solo tackles and more than 10 sacks in his career. This season he has dropped the quarterback three times and has registered six quarterback hits. In Sunday’s win against Tennessee he recorded the first interception by a Broncos defensive lineman since Vickerson did it in 2010.
What his numbers don’t show is how effective he has been in stopping the run. The Broncos allow just 99.8 rushing yards per game – the seventh best mark in the NFL. Much of that efficiency is a reflection of the push the Broncos get on the inside of the defensive line – namely Knighton and, before a hip injury sent him to injured reserve, Vickerson.
“They work well together and they are very dominant against the run,” rookie defensive tackle
Both Vickerson and Knighton have been leaders all season long – Vickerson has been a presence in the locker room even since his injury -- and their handiwork is most obvious in the progression of Williams. Williams said that those two were like big brothers to him and they had taken him under their wing.
Knighton said that he has simply tried to share what he sees on the field with the rookie to make things easier for Williams. He added that “seeing the small picture” and finding “easy ways to study” were things that he has shared with the young tackle.
That kind of sharing isn’t exclusive to his younger football-brother. Knighton puts a focus on communication when he’s on the field, letting his teammates know what he sees coming.
“I communicate with them very well,” Knighton said. “I let them know what’s going to happen. It almost gets to the point where I could play with my eyes closed and know exactly what’s going on. That’s how much I study and that’s how much I love the game.”
There is a family-like atmosphere among the defensive line. Williams considers Knighton and Vickerson like big brothers, and the two veteran tackles said they’re great friends off the field as well.
But it doesn’t stop there. Knighton played the first three seasons of his career under Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio, and the two were reunited this season in Denver.
“He’s almost like my uncle. I mean, he takes good care of me and he had faith in me obviously coming out,” Knighton said. “Teams passed up on me and I went in the third round and he thought highly of me. I started right away as a rookie and I just feel appreciative that he feels highly of me as a player. I’m just happy to have the opportunity to be here and be on a winning team.”
He’s not just on a winning team, he’s a key figure on a defensive line with which he fit in seamlessly. In the process, the veteran has set an example on how to work together in all aspects of the game.
“Just (showing) how you can get together and put work in and have a chemistry out there without really talking,” defensive tackle
With Vickerson’s season cut short, Knighton is the most experienced defensive tackle on the active roster. Additionally, he has played the most snaps of the defensive tackles this year.
Not only does that make him an anchor on the defensive line, but also a leader – a position that Vickerson says Knighton is more than capable than filling.
“He’s the next big man,” Vickerson said. “He’s been doing a good job at it and he knows how to lead, so that’s the good news.”
That leadership all starts with his knowledge of the game, and he brings it with him every time out.
“He brings a lot,” Unrein said. “He’s always out there talking with us. He sees different things. He knows when different things are coming and can communicate that with us. He knows good times to run stunts and things like that.
“I’m glad we have one of those guys like that in there with us.”