ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Denver's defense has held its own through three games, bolstered by its performance in goal-to-goal situations, when it has limited opponents to an adjusted total of 48 of a possible 77 points. Three goal-line stands in three games reveal the toughness of the defense.
But the Broncos have missed Danny Trevathan since he suffered a left tibial impaction fracture Aug. 12. He returned to practice on a limited basis Sep. 19, but based on the initial timetable for his recovery, he was expected back in Weeks 5 or 6.
Sunday's game with the Arizona Cardinals is Week 5. The time for Trevathan's return is near.
"It's a huge deal. I told him that today," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "I'm happy to have him back."
They've missed his sideline-to-sideline speed, his ability to fill the gaps and prevent runs from advancing at the second level, and his versatility, which yields equal effectiveness against the run, in pass rush and in coverage.
"I think with Danny is you get everything from him, as far as a blitzer, a cover guy, a guy that can take on blocks, a guy that can play in space," Knighton said. "He's the all-around package."
And he will give Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio the freedom to be more aggressive.
"It allows your defense to be more exotic and do more things and it's just another guy that quarterbacks have to worry about besides T.J. (Ward) blitzing or DeMarcus (Ware) coming off the edge," Knighton said. "You've got to worry about Danny now, so he brings a lot more versatility to our defense."
Trevathan has moved well during the periods of practice open to media observation, and teammates said he continued that during the remainder of Monday's session.
"He looked great out there," said safety Rahim Moore. "He's flying around. He's so fast man, he's physical. (With) the way he gets off blocks and makes plays, it's what you want in a linebacker. He's like a young Derrick Brooks to me."
It's bold to compare a third-year linebacker to a 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. But his effectiveness in his first year as a starter justified it, particularly as he held up the defense through the loss of six starters for extended periods.
"He's got tremendous speed and explosion and those things all ring up pretty well when you're getting more experience as he is, a young player," said Broncos Head Coach John Fox. "I've seen him progress really every season and every game."
But the progress is evident throughout the linebacking corps, which is deeper now than it was before Trevathan's injury. Brandon Marshall started three games in place of Trevathan, and could return to the role in which he worked prior to the injury: as nickel linebacker working alongside his fellow 2012 draft pick.
"It might be just what it was before," said Marshall. "We'll see."
But Marshall's every-down experience can only help the entire group, which lacked proven depth prior to Marshall's three-game starting stint.
"It's good that Brandon got that experience while Danny was hurt, so it'll allow our linebackers to rotate and have guys that they can trust go in and play," said Knighton.
The emergence of Marshall and middle linebacker Nate Irving gives the Broncos more options in their nickel alignment. Marshall and Irving worked together on 114 plays during which the Broncos used five defensive backs. The Broncos allowed one first down every 3.45 plays when Marshall and Irving worked together in front of a nickel secondary; on all other snaps, opponents moved the sticks once every 2.86 plays.
"I think I showed them that I'm a starter in this league, that I'm capable of starting," said Marshall. "I showed them that I'm capable of putting up some good stats and playing at a good level. That was my goal, and the chips fall where they may.
"The only thing I can control is my play; I can't control what happens after that, so that's just what I was trying to focus on."
Through three games, the linebackers delivered solid, credible play. Trevathan, when he's back in the game-day lineup, will make them better.