Training camp began with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware grabbing the attention for the entire defense (let alone the pass rushers),  but a few weeks into the preseason the depth at outside linebacker became staggeringly clear.

Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray dominated in the preseason, which led to more playing time through the first five weeks of the regular season. Now, due to injuries or otherwise, they will be expected to play like starters.

“This defense is arguably one of the top defenses in the league right now. The pressure, especially from your teammates, to be on point in everything that you do is there,” Ray, the rookie of the bunch, said Wednesday. “For me, I just want to make sure when I’m out there that my teammates can trust that I’m going to be productive, make those plays and help them get another victory.”

Barrett, who barely made the practice squad last season, and Ray, the Broncos first-round pick in this year’s draft, jumped out in the preseason. They combined for 6.4 sacks and three forced fumbles heading into the regular season.

“We were out in the preseason and we were having a blast. We were making plays left and right, getting sacks and we kind of fed off each other. Now we are further down the road and our roles have increased and we still have the same mentality, to get better and still try to go out and dominate,” Ray said Thursday.

Their preseason performances gave the coaching staff the confidence to mix them into regular season games to help rest Ware and Miller. That experience will now play a huge role due to Ware’s likely absence from Sunday’s game due to a back injury.

“There’s a lot of confidence in everybody, just watching them practice and prepare. If DeMarcus is unable to play, I think that they’re excited to go out there and be a part of what’s going on. They have been, but now they get a chance to be a bigger part,” head coach Gary Kubiak declared.

Ray recorded his first two sacks of his career over the last two weeks and Barrett, whom Kubiak stated would start if Ware cannot play, has added two as well. Ray had high expectations placed on him due to his draft position in May. Barrett’s journey has been different.

He was not highly touted coming out of Colorado State University, despite a stellar collegiate career. Kubiak sated plainly why he has received more playing time recently and will likely start Sunday: “He just continues to take advantage of every opportunity that he’s gotten.”

Barrett himself has even been surprised at his sudden role on a stacked defense.

“I didn’t foresee this at all because there was pretty stiff competition coming into the season and I just got an opportunity and ran with it. I didn’t see it shaping out like this. All our guys, ones or twos, we all go out there ready to work and go out and practice hard every day. There is no big difference between the ones and twos. Everybody on this defense is a playmaker. That’s what we need to be great. Thats what we want to do is be great.”

Ray admitted Thursday that Barrett helped him get adjusted to NFL life and has benefited from having another young player in his shoes on the team. It has added an extra fire to their relationship as teammates.

“It is really cool because I look at Shaq as one of my brothers,” Ray said Thursday, just two lockers down from Barrett. “When we get on the field, we compete. We compete against each other but compete to make plays and make each other better.”

Kubiak stated that if Ware were able to play Sunday that “it would have to be a big step tomorrow for that to happen.” Barrett and Ray will get a much larger role Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, who threw 51 times in their overtime win against the Baltimore Ravens last week. Barrett lit up when he was asked about the matchup this week in Cleveland.

“We watched third down plays and we are really excited to get out there and get off the edge a couple times because they do pass a lot. They hold onto the ball too long a couple times, so we know we will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays for the team.”

Ray echoed Barrett’s comments but elaborated on how they will approach the pass-heavy Cleveland offense that averages the sixth most passing yards per game, led by Josh McCown.

“There are a lot of opportunities to get to the quarterback. It starts with us making sure that our technique is down and we are reading formations well and being able to just adapt to situations and know when it is time to go after the quarterback.”

Barrett and Ray have been brought into the fold by their teammates. Miller and Ware, superb pass rushers in the NFL, cannot say enough about the young players’ work on the field.

“When I come out there’s really not a drop in performance. Shaq is a good fill in for us. It’s not just Shaq, but also Shane and Lerentee [McCray]. If DeMarcus isn’t able to go, I’m fully confident in those guys,” Miller said Thursday.

Now, it seems that the importance of maintaining the level of play, no matter who is in the game, has sunk into the first and second-year players.

“We need to keep working hard because those five weeks are over and know we have to keep working,” Barrett stated emphatically. “We could go out and give up thirty points next game and everything would go down the drain. Everybody would be saying, ‘They were just a fluke.’”

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and Kubiak are banking on the fact that these two players certainly are no fluke and they will definitely get more opportunities to show it Sunday.

*All stats provided by the Denver Broncos Media Relations unless otherwise noted

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