ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broncos would not have made it to Super Bowl XLVIII without their depth passing one test after another. And few tests were aced better than those on the defensive line, where the Broncos learned that Malik Jackson and Sylvester Williams have not just the potential to start, but the ability to grow and flourish.
But neither might have had the same kind of performance, particularly late in the season, without Knighton occupying multiple blockers on the field and emerging as a leader off it.
Knighton was having a good season before defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson succumbed to a hip injury in the Week 12 loss at New England. After that, he began to assert himself more as a leader, helping guide Williams, the then-rookie who became Vickerson's replacement alongside him.
"He stepped up, especially when Vick was out," said Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio. "I thought Terrance stepped up and had a big year for us. Really played well down the stretch and he's now a real anchor for our front. Not only physically -- he's a very strong, talented guy -- but also the leadership ability he brings."
As the offere's a leadership void on the defense. Last year's defensive captains, Champ Bailey and Wesley Woodyard, are with the New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans, respectively. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware, a captain with the Cowboys, appears likely to assume some of the leadership responsibility in his new surroundings; that's part of the reason why he fits with the Broncos.
But leadership isn't anointed; it must be cultivated.
"As coaches, we provide a blueprint, we provide kind of a map for them, but then they have to take it and make it their own," said Del Rio. "So the interaction they have, the time they spend lifting weights and running, different guys emerge. Guys earn the respect of their peers and I think as you play and you're here and as you show you're a guy that can be counted on, then your voice becomes a little more important.
"So that's how I think you kind of grow into it. Very rarely does a guy just plug himself and say, 'Hey, I'm the leader.' So as coaches that's something that encourage obviously, for guys to step up and take charge and be accountable and take responsibility for each other."
Last year, the player who grew most in that type of role was Knighton. He took a special interest in Williams and helped him learn how to read developing plays, how to anticipate blocks from the inside, and how to study film.
"The older you get, the more football you see, the easier it is," said Knighton. "One thing I always tell him is to just watch film and watch other guys around the league that play his position. Just try to take something from other guys. Knowing we play Kansas City twice and Oakland twice, you know who you're going to be going against twice a year."
It's in the film room where Knighton also works with Nate Irving, who has been penciled in at middle linebacker after turning in some solid play on the strong side during the postseason as Von Miller's injury replacement.
"We sit next to each other in the film room," said Knighton. "We were talking about a play yesterday, and I told him, 'Nate, if there are two guys on me, just go. Just go. Don't worry about what Coach Del Rio tells you to do -- really just go and make the play. If you're wrong, we'll play off each other,'" Knighton said with a laugh.
That isn't to say that Knighton won't take heed of what Del Rio says on the sideline. But in the moment of action, leadership and decisiveness must arise from on the field. The better cohesion that Knighton and Irving develop, the stronger the middle of the defense can be.
"That's the type of relationship you want to have with your [middle linebacker]. Last year, I had that same relationship with Wesley Woodyard and Paris Lenon. Sometimes when you're on the football field, X's and O's go out the window and you've just got to play."
And more and more, where Knighton leads, the defense will follow.
"I lead every way I can," Knighton said. "We've got a lot of young guys. Sometimes they'll mess up and they'll need a vet to let them know it's all right and we've been there before. We just want to make sure everybody's moving forward together.
"Nobody wants to leave each other behind -- we want to move together as a group. That's something we definitely talk about with the first group on defense, playing together as a unit and being a dominant defense."