ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Never in 2013 did the Denver Broncos have their intended starting defense on the field. And thanks to pass rusher Von Miller's season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament at Houston last Sunday, they Broncos never will line up that defense.
Miller was injured just moments after Champ Bailey returned to the lineup for the first time since Dec. 1 and just the fourth time all season. It was the latest blow to a defense that featured seven different starting lineups in the seven games since their Week 9 bye -- numbers that will almost certainly reach eight in eight after Sunday's regular-season finale at Oakland.
"He's not available so we'll do what we always do here and that's (insert) the 'next man up' and keep rolling," said defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "That's what it is."
But the depth of the Broncos' defense has been tested this year in a way it has rarely experienced before. Six different starters have missed a combined 32 games to various injuries or suspensions, and the constant lineup shuffling necessitated by the injuries has prevented the unit from becoming as cohesive as it was in 2012, when it ranked No. 2 in the league in yardage allowed.
The six games played without Miller when he was suspended at the start of the regular season did have one benefit: it forced the defense to learn how to play without its star pass rusher. Denver was able to maintain a league-average pass rush without Miller by using linebackers Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard and its defensive backs to blitz, something the Broncos revived in the second half at Houston after Miller's injury.
"He'll be back at some point next year and this year we just need to carry on with what we have," Del Rio said. "The fact that we did go through it earlier in the year, we have a little bit of an understanding of what it's going to take and not just one guy can fill his role because he does a lot of different things. It takes more than one guy and we understand that and we'll work at it accordingly."
The multiple replacements for Miller start in the lineup, with Nate Irving ascending to the starting strong-side spot and Robert Ayers likely to see more time as a defensive end in pass-rush situations, opposite Shaun Phillips. But the pass rush will also come from others, including safety Mike Adams, who blitzed multiple times Sunday, and cornerback Champ Bailey, who moved to the slot last week after returning from a foot injury.
Working at slot cornerback effectively places Bailey on a pitch count, but also gives him the chance to rush the passer.
"It gives me a chance to mix it up a little bit," he said. "I haven't done that a lot in my career; I might have two or three career sacks, stuff like that. So it'll be good for me to mix it up and get dirty a little bit."
Safety Mike Adams is equally as eager to attack the quarterback.
"I love to blitz, even though I missed one last week," he said.
The Broncos will need more than just love of the opportunity. They'll need effectiveness, otherwise their Super Bowl dreams could be lost without Miller in the lineup.