ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Jim Leonhard doesn't know exactly what his role will be in the Broncos' season opener Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Regardless, being on the field for kickoff will be a special personal moment for Leonhard, who spent the offseason recovering from a knee injury he suffered last December.
"It's been a rough end to the last couple of years for me," Leonhard said. "To get back on that field, it's going to mean a lot to me, in a live, regular-season game. I'm excited. I don't care what my job is, however many snaps I'm going to get this week, it means a lot to me to get back on the field."
Leonhard, who arrived in Denver after compiling 309 tackles and 60 starts during seven seasons with the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, brings a veteran safety presence to the Broncos' defense. Having played with elite defenders like Darrelle Revis of the Jets and Ed Reed and Ray Lewis of the Ravens, Leonhard knows what it takes for a defense to be successful. He said that the best defenses win most of their battles before the ball is ever snapped.
"I think the biggest thing is just emphasizing communication and pre-snap recognition," Leonhard said. "All the great defenses I've been around have had that. Sometimes it takes young guys a little bit of time to realize that that's where the game is won and lost. It's not just the Xs and Os of what your job is, it's recognizing something pre-snap and then going and making a play. Especially on the back end, you have a chance to really change the game."
Leonhard sees the potential for a strong season out of the Broncos' D.
"There's a ton of talent, there's a lot of young talent on this team and you add that to the guys up front that can just flat out get to the quarterback," Leonhard said. "That's a dangerous thing, especially this year hoping that (quarterback) Peyton (Manning) can do his job and put some points on the board. You get ahead of some teams early and force them into obvious passing situations and kind of let this defense loose, I think we can do some good things."
In addition to a solid cast of teammates including perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, Leonhard has enjoyed working with Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio.
"It's always great to have a coordinator with a ton of experience," Leonhard said. "He's a guy who had been a head coach, so he understands both sides of the ball and how they work off of each other. I think his experience is going to be huge for this group this year."
With a promising defense and an offense led by one of the top quarterbacks in league history in Manning, the Broncos enter 2012 with high expectations. Leonhard wouldn't have it any other way.
"I would rather be nowhere else than here," Leonhard said. "You want high expectations as a player. You don't want to go into a season with the media saying, 'If they're good, they'll be 7-9 or 8-8.' You want high expectations. You want to be able to go into a season knowing that you're going to make a run. And we feel that way here. Obviously you have to get it done. We have a tough schedule. You take them one at a time but we feel like we're going to be in this thing at the end."
FIVE BRONCOS HONORED AS CAPTAINS
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard prides himself on setting a good example for his teammates. For the fourth time in his career, dating back to his rookie season, Woodyard was again recognized for his leadership with the honor of being one of the Broncos' five team captains.
"I just want to continue to uphold what a true Bronco is," Woodyard said. "That's going out there, playing hard and being a true leader."
"It's somebody that's always out there putting it all out on the field," Woodyard continued. "Every play, giving it their all, leading by example, doing the right things every time. You can't have a bad day and you can't have a day off."
The Broncos' other 2012 captains are quarterback Peyton Manning, guard Chris Kuper, cornerback Champ Bailey and defensive end Elvis Dumervil. Running back Willis McGahee will serve as an interim captain while Kuper recovers from injury. Bailey and Kuper are both entering at least their third seasons as Broncos captains, and Manning was a captain his last 10 seasons in Indianapolis.
Rookie defensive lineman Derek Wolfe said Dumervil was named a captain for the first time thanks to his work ethic and willingness to give advice to younger players.
"He does all the little things right," Wolfe said. "He plays hard and doesn't complain. Whenever you need advice, he gives it to you. He's one of the best leaders I've ever been around."
WOLFE READY FOR DEBUT
Wolfe's been anticipating his NFL debut, which kicks off Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, for as long as he can remember.
"I've been preparing a long time for this," Wolfe said. "My whole life, I've been preparing for (Sunday). Obviously, (it's against) Pittsburgh. I grew up 45 minutes from Pittsburgh, so it's going to be a fun game."
Wolfe's rise to the top of the depth chart at defensive end before his first game as a rookie is something a lot of players would take pride in. But Wolfe expects himself to be much more than just a placeholder along the defensive line.
"Now it really counts," Wolfe said. "We've seen flashes of how good we really can be, so now we can get it going for four quarters and see how great we can actually be out there. I expect to be the best, and I demand nothing but greatness of myself. Being anything less than a contributor is a failure for me."
Though he plays alongside a handful of veterans in tackles Ty Warren and Justin Bannan and fellow end Elvis Dumervil, Wolfe knows that their advice will only take him so far on game day.
"A couple guys have said something to me, but what kind of advice can they give you?" Wolfe said. "Just go out there and play football, that's all they can tell you."