ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --** For a defense that had many of its top players on injured reserve by the Super Bowl last season, playing without one injured first-teamer for three weeks was anything but a crushing blow.
Brandon Marshall and Nate Irving stepped up in Danny Trevathan's absence, combining for 58 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes defensed and a forced fumble in three games. But that doesn't mean the third-year linebacker -- a stat-stuffer in his own right, with 125 tackles, seven TFLs, three picks and 10 passes defensed in 2013 -- wasn't missed.
"He's just another pit bull out there that we need," Chris Harris Jr. said Wednesday, "and a guy that knows the whole defense already so he doesn't have to think a lot. He can just play fast. I see Danny just fitting right back in."
Trevathan's impact won't only be felt as a sideline-to-sideline tackler and versatile cover man. After taking on an expanded role in his second season, the former sixth-round pick emerged as a defensive leader during training camp, something that Von Miller and Jack Del Rio both emphasized on Thursday.
The Broncos have been busy preparing for Sunday's game against the Cardinals. Check out photos from Thursday's practice at Dove Valley.
"He gives us all a cause," Miller said. "He's always the guy with those words of encouragement during the game, that's his role. And him being back in action, and just encouraging all our guys is great."
"Only missing three games and then getting him back is a nice thing," Del Rio said. "He's a good football player. He's instinctive. He's grown into a leadership role, so we'll welcome him back."
With No. 59 returning to his weakside linebacker spot, the unit that has been laid out on paper since T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware arrived should finally make its group debut Sunday. And while fans are certainly excited about the possibilities, the players are pretty fired up as well.
"We haven't had our whole 100 percent on defense yet so it's going to be scary to see what we look like," Harris said, smiling. "I'm excited for Danny, just for really everybody. Just finally being together as a whole, no missing links of people being hurt. It's been so long since we've had everybody together. It's kind of crazy."
Though the attrition of an NFL season makes it difficult for any team to maintain its ideal starting lineup all year, Del Rio and Co. will certainly look to capitalize on the now fully-healthy squad.
Trevathan's versatility as a blitzer and in coverage could present a few more schematic possibilities to attack defenses. And considering Marshall's effectiveness in coverage through three weeks, along with rookies Lamin Barrow and Corey Nelson earning some snaps in Seattle, nickel and dime looks that feature more combinations of linebackers could certainly be on the table.
Del Rio noted that Trevathan won't jump directly back into his 2013-level of playing time, when the linebacker played 84.8 percent of defensive snaps (second on the team) despite sitting out a game. But his slightly diminished participation may have as much to do with the growth of Denver's rotational players as it does with gradually bringing an injured player back.
"Now we have so many guys on defense who play a big role," Terrance Knighton said Wednesday, "With Malik Jackson and [Bradley] Roby and guys that play a lot of football, and now Brandon Marshall. So we have, I consider, about 15 to 16 starters on our defense that play at a high level."
While Trevathan may be the final piece of the puzzle, there's also reason to expect growth from a weapon that's played in all three games this season.
Miller's progress in his return from an ACL injury has mirrored the progress as a whole of Denver's D through three weeks, and both looked downright dominant at times against the Seahawks' versatile attack.
"That's been my whole gameplan is just take a step on my performance from the week before and that's what I'm trying to do this week," Miller said.
If those steps continue at Miller's current pace, the player who was 2012's runner-up Defensive Player of the Year could be right around the corner. And considering DeMarcus Ware -- who has 2.5 sacks and had a game-ending strip-sack overturned against the Chiefs -- is lurking on the other side, opposing offenses will have plenty to worry about.
"I talk to Von all the time about being consistent every week and improving every week," Ware said Thursday. "That's what he and I are trying to do to get more pressure on the quarterback, so we don't have to blitz as much and really rely on our expertise of getting to the quarterback."
"With Von from game one until now you can see how much he has improved and he's trying to put that whole game together."
Like Miller, Denver's D as a group is still searching for a dominant four-quarter performance after being a little touch-and-go thus far. Perhaps with Trevathan's return, this weekend could be an ideal opportunity to do so.
"We are trying to go out there and put a full game together where offense, defense and special teams," Ware said. "Get out there and we play a full four quarters because that is what this game is about."
"We don't want to just play a good first half or a good second half, we want to go out there and put a whole game together."