ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) The young understudy has played great in place of the injured veteran superstar in Denver, and it's almost time to go back to the bench.
No, this isn't about Brock Osweiler and Peyton Manning but pass-rushers Shaq Barrett and DeMarcus Ware.
A bad back has sidelined Ware for a month but he could return to Denver's top-ranked defense this weekend at San Diego, although the safer bet has him waiting until the Broncos host Oakland on Dec. 13.
''I just want to make sure when I come back I come back blazing,'' Ware said Thursday.
He rushed back the first time he hurt his back and that didn't end well at all.
Ware missed a game at Cleveland on Oct. 18 and was back on the field Nov. 1, when he had a monster game against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers following the Broncos' bye week. But he aggravated the injury a week later at Indianapolis and hasn't played since.
Barrett had a spectacular game at Cleveland in his first NFL start, collecting nine tackles and 1 1-2 sacks, and the Browns were so impressed they inquired about his availability at the trade deadline not long afterward.
Not a chance, said general manager John Elway, who wasn't about to part with the gem he'd unearthed in the undrafted free agent from Colorado State last year.
Ware aggravated his bad lower back shortly after jumping into the NFL's top-10 all-time sacks list with 133 1-2, and Barrett, first-round draft pick Shane Ray and Lerentee McCray have picked up the slack - if not the sacks in his absence.
Barrett recovered Chris Harper's fumbled punt in the fourth quarter that sparked Denver's comeback from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit Sunday night in their big win over New England, when Ray had a huge hit on Tom Brady in overtime.
''They're the dirty duo,'' Ware said. ''You've got Shane, Shaq, you've got Lerentee, also. You've got to throw him in the mix. Those guys have really been rushing the passer effectively and doing what they need to do. They've learned a lot from the games that they've been in there and getting a lot of plays.''
Ware returned to practice this week for the first time since Nov. 6 and coach Gary Kubiak said ''from yesterday to today there was a big step'' but stressed there's no urgency to get Ware back on the field this weekend.
The key is to have him healthy for the stretch run.
Ware said he has to be able to go into the game worry-free so he can let loose without wondering if his back will go out again and sideline him for playoffs, when his health could be a huge factor in Denver's Super Bowl chances.
Ware never missed a game in his first nine seasons. A thigh injury in 2013 snapped his streak of 134 consecutive games played, and after a three-week absence he strung together 29 in a row before missing four of his last six this season.
Asked if that ironman streak took its toll, Ware said, ''Mother Nature takes its toll.'' Injuries happen and at age 33 they take longer to heal.
''He's a legend out there on the field,'' said pass-rushing partner Von Miller. ''He's going to be back at some point in the season and whenever he's back, the other team's going to catch hell.''
Despite missing a month, Ware's 6 1-2 sacks are just a-half sack shy of Miller for the team lead. The AFC's Defensive Player of the Month in September, Ware said getting hurt was especially a bummer given the great start he'd had to his 11th NFL season.
''I was getting a sack a game and getting a lot of pressure. Oh my gosh, injury strikes,'' Ware said. ''Now, I just sit back and think, OK, what was I doing to be effective at that time? And whenever you get back, how effective can I be? And what kind of impact can I make?
''It's sort of like, you put the cape up for a little while and then you come back out of that booth and Superman comes back out of there. That's what I'm trying to do.''
Notes: WR Cody Latimer (boy) and ILB Corey Nelson (girl) returned to practice after missing Wednesday's workout. Each was attending the birth of his child. ... CB Lorenzo Doss was sick Thursday. ... RG Evan Mathis (groin) returned to practice.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton