The big news this week is the return of Derek Wolfe, a run-stopping physical brute who can add to any defense. The even better news is that the defensive line, thought to be a weakness entering training camp, has played exceptionally well in his absence.

Vance Walker and Antonio Smith have resurrected their careers in Wade Phillips’ defense and have played admirably alongside Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson. The defensive line has become an invaluable part of the NFL’s best defense while Wolfe was away.

“Our play and our record speaks for itself,” Jackson declared Wednesday. “Ever since Tony [Smith] and Vance [Walker] got here we knew what kind of players they were. I don’t know why Walker wasn’t playing where he was at but they’ve both been great.”

Wolfe was suspended four games by the NFL on July 24 for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances. At the time, it was a big blow to the team that was searching for reliable linemen to play the two inside defensive end positions. Many wondered if Jackson was physical enough against the run and if Walker had could be relied on at all after only starting 28 games in seven years in the NFL. Also, Smith was still absent from the team due to personal off-field problems.

“Somebody is going to have to step in. There are going to be opportunities for other players. That’s why Vance [Walker] is here. Vance had a really good offseason. He’s going to need to step in,” head coach Gary Kubiak said on the eve of training camp. “Other players are just going to have to step in, but I think that we’re very well coached at that position and I think they’ll do well with those guys.”

The Broncos defensive linemen have done just that. The five linemen used in the first four weeks, rookie Darius Kilgo, Jackson, Williams, Smith and Walker have combined for four sacks, three quarterbacks hits and 27 hurries according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). They have also been the front that has allowed an average of only 90.3 rushing yards per game, good for eighth in the league. They have helped shut down impressive running backs, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Justin Forsett.

Jackson and Williams entered the season with tremendous pressure upon their shoulders and have delivered week-in and week-out. Smith has continued to be an inside pass-rushing specialist in his 12th NFL season and Walker has been the biggest surprise.

He has bounced around the league and after a frustrating season with the Kansas City Chiefs, in which he started only two games and played in very limited snaps, he joined the Broncos via free agency March 12. Through four games he ranks 16th among 3-4 defensive ends, just four slots behind Jackson and has been good against both the run and the pass, per PFF.

“I’ve been just working trying to be the best player I can be, the best teammate I can be,” Walker said Wednesday. “I’ve still got a ways to go on a lot of things. I have an optimistic outlook but I’d say I’ve been tuning in better mentally on certain plays teams may run or on formations they may run.”

The group as a whole, has overachieved and adding another veteran player on a stacked defense will be a boost that both the players and coaches acknowledged this week.

“We’ve been playing great and Wolfe just adds another mean player for us. He is someone who is great against the run and can just add another body in there,” Jackson said Wednesday.

The Broncos have suited up only five defensive linemen and will have to make some roster decisions with the addition of Wolfe. Kubiak called it, “a good problem to have” this week, but it remains to be seen who will watch the game from the sidelines. Wolfe will undoubtably be back in a jersey and will likely start in Oakland on Sunday.

“I think Derek earned his keep when he was here throughout the offseason and training camp. Derek has earned the right to play,” Kubiak stated Wednesday. “It should only make us better. We’ll need them all. Whoever we suit, they’ll all play.”

Sixth-round pick from this year’s draft, Kilgo may be the odd man out this week despite his solid play throughout the preseason and into the first four regular season games. Smith is particularly thrilled to see Wolfe get his first playing time of the year.

“I’m excited. I’m prepared for this massacre he is going to pull out this week. He’s in shape, he’s ready to go, he has a lot of pent up frustration and he is going to let it loose.”

The Raiders have started off the season well along their offensive line. While they have only averaged 96.2 rushing yards per game, they have throw the ball well and have protected their quarterback Derek Carr, giving up only five sacks.

The Broncos were expecting to have a drop off in talent when Wolfe was hit with his suspension but surprisingly, they have excelled. Wolfe’s return may have made the headlines but in all honesty they have hardly missed him. The defense is firing on all cylinders and Wolfe merely needs to hop aboard the train. Getting Wolfe back at this point is a bonus and he likes what he is returning to.

“When you get to come into the No. 1 defense in the league, just to add and help, what else can you ask for? It’s not like they’re out there getting beat up real bad. They’re out there just dominating. Being able to come back into that is going to be great.”

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