ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --While a 15-year veteran at quarterback got most of the headlines, a crop of young Broncos made their impact felt all over the field Sunday night.
Running back Ronnie Hillman, linebacker Danny Trevathan and tight end Virgil Green all set new career highs in the 34-14 win against the New Orleans Saints.
Hillman, a rookie, played a pivotal role in the Broncos' rushing attack that put up 225 yards on the ground. Denver's third-round pick carried the ball 14 times and gained 86 yards, an average of more than six yards per carry - all personal bests for Hillman in the NFL.
He began the season as a gameday inactive after a hamstring injury in the preseason put him behind the learning curve. As Hillman continues to adapt to the NFL in practice, Head Coach John Fox feels more comfortable using him in the game.
"I've said all along, Ronnie's a guy we thought very highly of and that's why we drafted him," Fox said. "He's catching up and he's worked very hard at it. Eric Studesville, our running backs coach, has worked very hard with him as far as the extra time, whether it's in the meeting room or on the field. We're trying to bring him along and get him better each and every day and each and every week."
In the third quarter of Sunday night's game, Hillman broke free down the sideline for a 31-yard pickup, also a career high. The run set the Broncos up deep in Saints territory, and a Peyton Manning touchdown pass soon followed.
As the rookie continues to gain experience and knowledge, he expects his to see more of that explosive element in his game.
"What comes with reps is experience," Hillman said. "The more experience you get the more comfortable you are with the offense, and you're able to play faster."
Linebacker Danny Trevathan was another rookie who saw his most extensive action of the year on Sunday night. Trevathan, a sixth-round pick, has been used mostly on special teams in 2012. Against the Saints, he was on the field for nearly half of the defensive snaps.
The former Kentucky Wildcat made his presence felt right away, diving to deflect a Drew Brees pass on the Saints' first third down of the game. It was Trevathan's first career pass defensed, and it forced a New Orleans punt. He also made three tackles on the night.
For Fox, Trevathan was another example of a young player showing progress on the field.
"It's a young man's game, so you have to develop young talent in this league in those roles," he said. "Danny's another guy that was a highly productive player out of Kentucky in a very competitive league in college football and he's getting more and more comfortable with what that role is on our team. I've been impressed with his development."
Linebacker Keith Brooking has played with many young linebackers during his 15 years in the league. He believes Trevathan has shown promising potential with all of the tools needed to be a successful pro.
"Danny's a very explosive guy," Brooking said. "You see that when you turn on the film and you watch him. He's quick. He's fast. There's a learning curve for all rookies. He makes mistakes out there, but when he makes them, he's making them going full speed. You see his playmaking ability when he gets the opportunity, so you've just got to keep moving forward, getting better. Keep studying the game, doing the little things that it takes to be a good pro, and he's going to be a really good football player."
Fox added that players like Brooking have made the transition for younger players much easier to make. Whether it's words of wisdom or just observing and immitating the way the veterans approach the game, the success of Denver's youth is a credit to the teachings of experienced players.
"Having those guys to show you the way as a young player is great," Fox said. "I think when you get to see that kind of guy that has done it at a high level, how he goes about his business day to day and the preparation part of this game, I don't know that there's a better teaching tool."
A third young Bronco who stepped up in the 34-14 win was second-year tight end Virgil Green, who doubled his career catch total with three grabs for 44 yards. His 28-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter also gave him a career high in receiving yards.
But when he wasn't catching passes, Green created holes for the running backs and protected the quarterback as a blocking tight end. He was on the field for a season-high 34 offensive plays.
Similar to Hillman, Green's increased role on Sunday night can be attributed to a better comfort level in the offense after missing some time earlier in the season. Green sat out the first four games of the year serving a league-mandated suspension. Fox called the month that Green missed "an eternity in the NFL," especially for a young tight end.
But with the tools that Green brings to the field, it's tough to keep him off it.
"He's got good speed, good athleticism," Fox said. "He is big and physical, which those are great combinations for a tight end. He'll develop and he'll get used to it, a little bit like Ronnie Hillman getting back in the flow of things."