Knighton's growth helped by Del Rio's presence
Terrance Knighton and Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio go way back. When Knighton came into the league in 2009, Del Rio was his head coach in Jacksonville. They were there together for a little over two years, and would reunite in Denver in 2013.
So there's perhaps no one who has a better understanding of Knighton's progression since the beginning of his career to where he is now, both on the field and off it. To that point, Knighton won the Denver media's pick for the eighth-annual Darrent Williams Good Guy Award, which was presented on Friday.
"He's got a big presence. He's really matured as a football player," Del Rio said. "I had him when he was a youngster in Jacksonville and he's grown up a lot. He's a good football player and he's a dominant presence for us in the middle of our defense and he does take on that role of leadership and take it serious. He wants to help his teammates, he wants to stand up for his teammates and he wants us to be as good as we can be. And having that kind of support is important."
His leadership has certainly become a big factor this season on a blooming defensive front with him as one of the defensive captains.
Knighton's also a very charismatic, smart and conscientious speaker with the media, and he credited Del Rio for helping empower players to speak their mind and take ownership of their actions. "If whatever you say put your name to it, whatever you do your name is going to be attached to it," Knighton said.
"He's a grown man," Del Rio said. "And I know that he believes the things that he talks about and as long as a man steps up, puts his name by it. I've got no problem with it."
Del Rio's trust key in defensive development
That kind of trust in autonomy is something that has helped the defense grow. With a unit that's seen players step up in the wake of injuries or other adversity, the confidence that Del Rio and members of the coaching staff pass along to the players has helped them develop in their roles, which is something Knighton has experienced ever since playing for Del Rio.
Check out the snaps from Friday's practice, where the Broncos' edge rushers were firing off the snap.
"The good thing about Coach Del Rio, when I came into the league he treated me like a man, when I got here, same thing, and that's why our defense has been so successful this year because he's allowing us to be men and go out there and play the way we want to really," Knighton said. "He makes the calls but he gives us a lot of freedom to be men and make plays. When we do bad he takes credit for the bad and when we do good he gives us the credit so you love playing for a coach like that."
Del Rio knows this, of course, and understands why it helps their goals of improving the defense and helping the players improve, as well.
"At the end of the day, I always talk about the fact that I'm going to be standing behind a white line and they're going to be out there playing," Del Rio said. "So we want to build an understanding of the principles we're looking for, the techniques we're looking for, but we don't want them to be robotic. So we allow some free flow. They've got to play off each other. They've got to make it right and they know the things we're looking to get done. So there's some of that involved in what we do. So it's kind of organized chaos. We want to have some structure and understanding and know where each other's going to be, and then there are certain opportunities to take advantage of their skill."
"Malik last week made a, you know, it was a 'be right' move. He made a nice move, got in the backfield, made a tackle for loss. If we forced him to be rigid and stay a certain leverage on that block, it would have never occurred. So those are the kinds of things that we encourage, so long as they're taking care of business in the right way."
It's all about third down, according to Adam Gase. With the greater commitment to the run in recent weeks, the Broncos have avoided third-and-longs, therefore, staying on the field. From Weeks 12-14, the Broncos were able to convert on 69.2 percent, 42.9 percent and 40 percent of their third down attempts.
But the Chargers were able to stop the Broncos' progress on third down – holding them to 3-of-12.
"When you get too many third-and-10s, that's where it gets difficult. San Diego did a good job of really putting us in some tough situations," Gase said. "All these guys did a great job making plays in some key situations. As far as calling the game, I feel like the way we're doing it right now has been effective. We'll just keep looking for that effective balance."
Each week during his Thursday press conference, Gase is questioned by the media about the Broncos' commitment to the run and the sudden shift in offensive play calling. But the shift is working as the Broncos are riding a four-game winning streak.
During the Broncos' first three games of this new offensive mindset, they averaged 4.6, 4.8 and 5.7 yards per game. The Chargers' potent and versatile defense was able to hold them to 2.9 yards per carry. But the production was good enough as the Broncos came out with the win in San Diego to clinch the AFC West.
C.J. Anderson, who has been extremely productive since Montee Ball's groin injury, has seen his attempts rise exponentially, as he had seven total last season to 148 in 2014. But Gase isn't worried about the wear and tear on his young back.
"The good thing is he hasn't had many carries over the last couple years, so I'm sure the last four games aren't really going to hurt him too bad," he said. "He's fine with what we're doing with him, and we're going to make sure we keep him in a good rhythm and let him do his thing."
Gase's record-breaking passing offense of 2013 scored far more points than this offense, but Gase realizes that this team is playing well and patience is key when you keep the ball on the ground.
"The good thing is when we do have two or three yards per carry, the next play, whether it be a run or a pass, we're making sure we're staying out of those third-and-long situations," he said. "That's the key. As long as we're not getting to [multiple] zero runs in a row, we're fine. We'll put ourselves in good position to make sure we're trying to convert third downs or getting another first down, a new set of downs."