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DeMarcus Ware shines in return to action

DENVER – Von Miller has a shiny, new contract.

Shane Ray is the former first-round pick poised for a big year.

Shaquil Barrett has earned the hype surrounding his name as an up-and-coming player.

But don't forget about DeMarcus Ware.

There's a reason the nine-time Pro Bowler had 134.5 sacks entering Thursday night's game against the Panthers. And there's a reason the four-time All Pro now ranks ninth in all-time sacks.

On Thursday, he got a little closer to that mark. Despite missing all of organized team activities and training camp, Ware reminded the Broncos that he's still got quite a bit left in the tank.

"I felt good," Ware said. "I'm glad I had this offseason to sort of rehabilitate myself and get my back right. Now, I was on a pitch count this game. Each game I'll play a little bit more, and I look forward to it. I said I was trying to swing a home run every single time, and I guess it worked out."

Ware earned another sack-and-a-half on Thursday, which brings him within 5.5 sacks of tying Michael Strahan for fifth place among the all-time leaders.

But Ware's sacks had bigger implications against the Panthers than his place in the history books. With the defense struggling against Cam Newton, Kelvin Benjamin and the rest of the potent Carolina offense, Ware helped turn the tide.

With the Panthers up 10 points in the third quarter and holding the ball, the Broncos needed a big play. Ware delivered that in the shape of a sack that forced the Panthers off the field on third down. As he blew past Panthers left tackle Michael Oher, he bent so low that his chest was nearly parallel with the ground.

Simply put, Newton didn't have a chance, and Ware's signature Hulk celebration made a return appearance to Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

"Big plays like that, they jump the pass rush a lot." Ware said. "And guys knowing that, hey, you know what, that was one sack we got. Then you taste that blood and you say: 'Hey, let's go out there. We're able to get pressure on him. We're figuring things out.' And that second half, we got pressure on him."

The Broncos didn't score on their next possession, but the tone of the game would change. Newton, who was looked at by the training staff following the play, would only run three more times the rest of the game. Before that hit, he took off seven times on either designed runs or scrambles.

And with Newton in the pocket more, the defense took advantage.

"We got tired of their protection, honestly, man," Ray said. "When you've got two blockers on you, it's kind of hard to get to the quarterback. We started working a few things to try to open up some one-on-ones, get some hits on Cam and it worked out."

Two possessions later, those hits would lead to a game-altering play. Just moments after the Broncos cut the Panthers' lead to three, Denver's pressure would force an off-target Newton throw that ended up in cornerback Chris Harris Jr.'s hands off the deflection.

"That's how it is in this defense," Bradley Roby said. "We can start off dead, but we just need one or two plays really to get us in it. D-Ware made the sack, Chris changed the game. That's what we do. You never know who it's going to come from on this defense."

Before looking at the tape, Head Coach Gary Kubiak wasn't quite sure led to the pass-rushing success in the fourth quarter.

"That's a good question," Kubiak said. "They were chipping us. They did some things that they didn't do in the Super Bowl to try to slow down Von and DeMarcus. Obviously they did that. I don't know. We picked it up in the second half, played a lot better and got off the field on third downs. I need to go look at it. I don't want to go effort-wise. I think we're always playing hard, but we just definitely played much better in the second half."

The shift seemed to begin and end with Ware, who repeatedly said in the lead up to this game that he was at "94 percent" after playing at only 70 percent in the Super Bowl. With the emergence of Miller – who tacked on the Broncos' last of three sacks of the evening -- Ware's play seemed to be a potential added bonus. If he came out in 2016 and compiled just a few sacks all year, the Broncos would have plenty of other options with their depth at outside linebackers.

Instead, the 12-year veteran racked up a sack and a half in his first appearance. The lack of practice didn't matter – on Thursday, Ware looked to be in his prime.

"DeMarcus is legendary," Miller said. "He's definitely the G.O.A.T. You know he only had like a week of practice? He's been rehabbing and trying to get right for all of training camp. Had a week of practice, [went] out there and had [1.5] sacks. Legendary."

Despite his quiet offseason, there's no sign that Ware will be anything less than his former self. There will be more snaps coming soon, Kubiak said, but in just under 20 snaps on Thursday, he made his impact felt.

To his teammates in the locker room, that's no surprise.

"That's DeMarcus Ware, man," Ray said. "That's all that needs to be said about that."

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