ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It has been almost five years since Justin Simmons last missed a game.
Simmons rarely misses so much as a single snap, having only missed six total since 2018. He notably had the longest snap streak among active defenders up until late last season, taking the field for over 3,200 consecutive plays. But after suffering a quad injury during Monday's game against the Seahawks, Simmons was placed on injured reserve and will miss at least four games.
The Broncos are not used to playing without him, but now they will have to find a way.
"He's a competitor," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "He played the whole game with [the injury]. I've got so much respect for him just as a person and as a player."
In Simmons' absence, multiple players will need to step up. The Broncos promoted practice-squad cornerback Essang Bassey to the 53-man roster and added veteran safety Anthony Harris to the practice squad, which will boost the secondary's depth. Third-year safety P.J. Locke, who primarily took snaps on special teams in Week 1, could see increased time on defense going forward, while rookie safety Delarrin Turner Yell may get a chance to play after being listed as inactive against the Seahawks.
Primarily, safeties Kareem Jackson and Caden Sterns should have the greatest role in temporarily replacing Simmons.
Jackson, a 13-year veteran, has been a staple of the Broncos' secondary throughout the last several years. He and Simmons have been a consistent duo, and their automatic communication has allowed them to frequently read and adjust to offensive formations before the snap. While not having Simmons will certainly hurt, Jackson has the utmost confidence in the backup safeties.
"As a secondary and as a team, we kind of pride ourselves on everybody being able to step in and there not be any drop-off," Jackson said Wednesday. "I definitely look forward to the next guy stepping up. … But it's hard to replace what Justin is for this team and his leadership."
Sterns, a second-year safety who recorded two interceptions, two sacks and five passes defensed in 2021, could take over for Simmons as the starting free safety. He started two games last season when Jackson was out, and he feels prepared to fill in for a key defensive player once again.
"We kind of rotate during training camp, I guess for purposes like this, so I'm looking forward to it," Sterns said. "I'm ready. I'm as ready as I was last year, it's the same thing this year. It's an opportunity to make plays, so I'm pretty excited for it."
With the chance to play alongside Jackson, Sterns will look to replicate the same strong communication that the veteran has with Simmons. They have played a lot of snaps together throughout the offseason and in practice, and Jackson claimed that Sterns has what it takes to rise to the occasion in Simmons' absence.
"Caden's played a ton of ball at a high level in this league in such a short time," Jackson said. "He's a smart player. We've used him in a bunch of different roles, so for him to step in and play safety, he did it a little bit for me last year when I was out. He has a ton of experience. I expect him to step in and play great."
Sterns has frequently spoken to Simmons' influence on his progression as a player, and the young safety is adding elements of the veteran's game to his own. By watching Simmons and Jackson communicate on the field, Sterns noted that his football IQ has grown significantly.
While Sterns typically plays as a dime back, he could see a lot of time at free safety with Simmons out. It is a different role than he is used to, but Sterns feels comfortable in the position because he played safety throughout his college career.
"[There's] a lot more vision," Sterns said of the free safety position. "When you're closer to the ball, things happen a lot faster, so you've got to react. For the safety, you get a little bit more time to react."
If Sterns steps into a larger role, he will be leaning on the words of encouragement Simmons has given him over the last year. The team captain's advice to Sterns was to calm the game down, because while the stakes may be higher, it's the same game they have been playing since they were little.
"[I'll] take the same approach," Sterns said. "It's more of a communication thing and making sure we're sharp on that. When it comes to making plays, I'm pretty confident in my ability."