By Arnie Stapleton, AP Pro Football Writer
ENGLEWOOD — Saying Shane Ray has been preparing for DeMarcus Ware’s absence is an understatement.
Ray, the Broncos’ top draft pick last year, and Shaq Barrett got the vast majority of snaps with the starters at outside linebacker during the offseason because Ware’s bad back was acting up again and Von Miller was mired in a contract stalemate.
As a nod to Ray’s rise and Ware’s health and age, the Broncos elevated Ray to the starting job opposite Miller this season. Ware, 34, transitioned into a role as a pass rushing specialist.
That plan worked well through six quarters until Ware broke his right forearm Sunday when he smashed into Miller’s right knee while trying to corral Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
Ware was scheduled to undergo surgery Tuesday to insert a plate that will aid the healing of the ulna bone. He’s expected to miss four to five weeks.
Even more will be asked of Ray in that time.
“This is what we’ve been trained for. This is what I’ve been doing all offseason. With DeMarcus being out, I took a lot of reps with the ones and I think that helped me grow as a player,” Ray said. “Now with the added reps on top of what I’ve been getting, I think I’m ready. I’m well-prepared, well-coached and I’m going to do the best job that I can.”
After being told of his promotion, Ray reshaped his body in the offseason, adding more muscle to his frame while maintaining his speed and quickness that made him a top-10 prospect until sliding to the Broncos at 23 after a state trooper found marijuana in his car four days before the NFL draft.
Ray was having a rather quiet start to his season with three tackles and one quarterback hit until he sealed Denver’s 34-20 win over the Colts with a scoop-6 after Miller sack-stripped Luck in the closing minutes.
“I learned a lot last year, growing as a player. Now I’ve been able to go out and get a lot of really good reps and show what I can do,” Ray said. “I feel like I’ve been doing well, but now I have to take it to another level, that’s the expectations of mine and of my teammates. I have to live up to what I’m supposed to do.”
Ray played a career-high 45 snaps Sunday and expects that number to increase to 60 during Ware’s absence.
With more experience and a better grasp of the scheme, Ray has heeded Ware’s advice this year to play more relaxed and rely on his reflexes.
“Last year I was thinking a lot and not reacting” quickly enough, Ray said. “Now I’m more comfortable. I can make plays off my athleticism.”
The Broncos (2-0), who visit Cincinnati (1-1) on Sunday, are taking a silver lining view of Ware’s absence, not only because of their depth but because they saw just how effective and disruptive a rested and ready Ware could be last season when he missed five games but was an absolute rock star in the playoffs.
Ware collected a dozen quarterback hits , 3½ sacks, four tackles for loss and recovered a fumble as he tormented Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Cam Newton in helping the Broncos win it all.
Miller also had a monster playoff run and the Super Bowl MVP is off to a great start this year with 10 tackles, four sacks, four more QB hits and two tackles for loss.
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said Miller should be just as effective without Ware.
“Oh yeah, I mean he’s still getting double-teamed with DeMarcus in. And people still got to respect Shane. I mean, he’s a playmaker, too,” Harris said. “Von’s always going to have a lot of attention regardless of whether D-Ware’s there or not. So, I don’t think it’s going to change too much.”