Life happens fast in the NFL.
It did for Broncos general manager George Paton, who on the eve of the regular season felt so good about his depth at outside linebacker that he traded Malik Reed to Pittsburgh to improve a late-round draft pick.
Five games into the regular season, he’s down three players at the position and signed practice squad member Jonathan Kongbo to the active roster before Thursday’s loss to Indianapolis to help fill in.
Starter Randy Gregory is on short-term injured reserve with a knee injury and out at least three more games, while Jonathon Cooper has missed the past three games with a hamstring injury and Aaron Patrick missed Thursday’s game because he remains in the league’s concussion protocol.
Life also happened fast for rookie Nik Bonitto, the team’s second-round pick in April, who did not play a snap in Denver’s season opener and was inactive Week 2. Less than three weeks later, he was not only dressed on gameday but in the game against the Colts on the first third down of the game, rushing quarterback Matt Ryan.
“I don’t want there to be any dropoff, for sure,” Bonitto said of filling in for the injured Gregory. “Randy, I definitely want to be a guy that can hold it down for him until he comes back. Just being able to play hard for him and make plays for him is what I want to do. I just want to make sure he’s in a comfortable position when he gets back and doesn’t have to rush back or anything like that.”
Bonitto and second-year man Baron Browning filled Gregory’s sizable absence well against Indianapolis. The Broncos opened the game in a four-down front rather than their usual three — defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero mixes several different fronts through Denver’s various nickel and sub packages — but Browning was in on the second snap of the game and Bonitto was in on the third.
Denver had a productive, disruptive defensive outing, holding the Colts without a touchdown and racking up six sacks, 12 hurries and seven tackles for loss.
“It’s just the expectation that we hold upon ourselves. We don’t like guys getting into our end zone and I feel like we accomplished that (Thursday),” Bonitto said. “That was good on our end and just trying to do everything Coach E preaches and mastering the basics.”
Bonitto’s 29-snap workload represented three times the defensive snaps he’d played in any game this season and well more than the 16 total defensive snaps he’d played the previous two weeks combined. In the lead-up to the game, Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett said he’d seen improved practice habits from the former Oklahoma standout in recent weeks.
“I still am not going to say I’m the perfect practice player, but just gaining better habits and being able to give the offense a look when I’m on scout team and just being able to give my best effort and get myself better every day (is the goal),” Bonitto said.
Browning, who had seen fewer pass-rush snaps over the first four games because of Gregory and Bradley Chubb’s prowess, flashed his skills against Indianapolis and finished with 1 1/2 sacks and six hurries.
Bonitto only logged one assisted tackle in the stat book but showed signs of the pass-rush ability that caused Paton and company to covet him in the draft process.
“It was good going against, obviously, much better competition than in the preseason,” Bonitto said. “Just going out there with my guys and playing, it felt good.”
Indianapolis’ offensive line has struggled, so stiffer challenges are ahead. Bonitto still has work to do to turn himself into a reliable run defender, but with Denver’s current injury situation on the edge, he’s going to continue to get opportunities.
Next up are the Chargers, whose outstanding left tackle, Rashawn Slater, is out for the season with a torn bicep. Jamaree Salyer stepped in and has played well in his place. Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert, of course, is a tougher player to pressure and get to the ground than Matt Ryan and most of the quarterbacks Denver has faced so far.
The Broncos can not allow him to extend plays the way Las Vegas’ Derek Carr did when he picked up first downs on all five of his non-kneeldown carries in the Raiders’ 32-23 victory in Week 4. Denver’s rookie pass-rusher will likely be a bigger part of the puzzle in trying to prevent that going forward.
“Just not being so tentative,” Bonitto said of his improvements going forward. “Trying not to just do my job, but going out there and just playing my type of ball. Going out there playing free and not having worries and just being comfortable out there.”