ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In the wake of a season-ending knee injury to starting cornerback Ronald Darby, the Broncos may have several options to replace him on the field, but they have only one option for the mindset they must have in doing so: Next man up.
"It's a tough loss, especially from [Darby's] perspective," cornerback Pat Surtain II said Tuesday. "He's been battling some injures, but especially this year. It's just a tough loss, but at the end of the day, my prayers went out to him and [I'm] praying for him for a speedy recovery. It was a big-time loss because he is a great player on this team, but the best thing is to move on and have guys step up."
Darby performed well through the first five games, allowing just seven completions on 18 targets for 73 yards and recording 14 total tackles, three passes defensed and a forced fumble. His level of play will be difficult to replace, but the Broncos' reserve cornerbacks are up for the challenge.
Third-year veteran Michael Ojemudia is eligible to return from injured reserve this week — and his potential return may come at an opportune time for the Broncos. The cornerback has 12 NFL starts and 18 appearances in his career, so his experience could land him a major role on the defense going forward.
Ojemudia started the season on IR after suffering an elbow injury in the Broncos' Week 2 preseason game against the Bills, and he looks to rejoin his teammates on the field soon for game action. On Tuesday, Ojemudia returned to practice for the first time since suffering the injury, and while he has not appeared in a game since the preseason, the defensive back assured that if he gets a chance to play, he will be ready.
"I feel good," Ojemudia said. "I was always staying sharp while I was out, and I've got a lot of confidence going into this week, so I'm excited for the opportunity. ... In terms of mental and football shape, I'm ready. I'll try to get all the rust out during practice this week, but I'm definitely ready and confident for this week."
When Ojemudia makes his return, he may have the chance to take on a role similar in significance to one he had as a rookie in 2020. That year, he recorded 62 total tackles, six passes defensed, four forced fumbles and a tackle for loss as he started 11 games. But the following season, he missed much of the year with a hamstring injury.
In spite of the frustration of starting this season on injured reserve, Ojemudia said he is ready to pick up where he left off in the preseason.
"I thought I was just making strides through OTAs, camp, preseason," Ojemudia said. "I got hurt, but I think I'm still where I was at — I don't think I lost a step."
Another player who could earn a much larger role going forward is rookie cornerback Damarri Mathis, a fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh. Mathis turned heads during training camp and the preseason, and he got his first opportunity to play when Surtain exited the Broncos' Week 2 game against the Texans. In his regular-season NFL debut, Mathis recorded five tackles and a clutch pass breakup on third-and-goal. When Darby left Thursday's game vs. Indianapolis, the Broncos again looked to Mathis, who recorded six tackles in a season-high 47 defensive snaps.
Surtain praised the rookie's development through his time with the organization, and he said he anticipates a bright future ahead for Mathis as his confidence continues to grow.
"He's gotten better with his preparation, I could say," Surtain said. "You can tell throughout each and every week, he's gotten out there and he's gotten more confident. You can just tell by his play and the way that he carries himself, he's just getting more confident out there as the weeks go on. Once you see that in a rookie, you know that the sky is the limit for him."
While Mathis is still adjusting to playing at the NFL level, the rookie noted that he feels prepared to step up in Darby's place if his name is called.
"[I have] that 'next man up' mentality," Mathis said. "I'm ready to play, and I just feel like I have that mindset and [I'm] just ready to go."
Regardless of who takes on the largest role in Week 6, the Broncos' secondary will be in good hands on "Monday Night Football" against the Chargers. Surtain has been locking down opposing wide receivers all year, and he is proving to already be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL at just 22 years old. Safety Justin Simmons is also eligible to return from injured reserve this week, so he will bring a wealth of talent and leadership to the field upon his return.
Mathis said he recognizes that Justin Herbert and the Chargers will likely test him throughout the game because of his limited experience. This is a challenge that he embraces wholeheartedly; if Herbert throws in his direction, Mathis said he is ready to make plays.
"Every time I get out there, I expect that," Mathis said. "I'm a rookie, so I know teams [are] looking, like, 'He's a rookie, he's fresh meat.' But I'm just going to trust my technique and do what I need to do to be able to win my one-on-one battles."