This week in Indianapolis, most of the talk has surrounded Peyton Manning’s return to his old stomping ground; a return that not only invites nostalgia, but has real implications on the AFC’s playoff picture.
Lost in the overwhelming Manning media blitz, however, is another return; one that has significant implications on the Broncos’ beleaguered defense: Von Miller’s.
This Sunday night, the Broncos’ best pass-rusher returns from a six-game suspension stemming from failed substance test and a litany of other embarrassments. Miller, for his part, says he’s learned and grown from the experience, and only time will tell how well he’s done both. What he can do on a football field, however, is without question, and while the Broncos went 6-0 in his absence, they need him to make an impact if an expected Super Bowl run is to materialize.
The Broncos are allowing an incredible — and unsustainable — 338 yards per game through the air; a number that’s bolstered somewhat by the high percentage of the time their often-trailing opponent must throw the ball. But the Broncos’ pass defense doesn’t pass the eye test either, with wide receivers running wild down the field and tight ends setting up camp in the middle of the Broncos’ defense.
On a team with ever-mounting injuries, Miller’s return is no panacea, but adding one of the most dynamic defenders in the league changes the Broncos’ formula in entirely positive ways. Here’s how.
First and foremost, Miller’s return stops the mixing-and-matching that defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was forced into during Miller’s absence. Nate Irving moves into a backup role, and if Wesley Woodyard can return from a neck injury on Sunday night, the Broncos instantly possess the fastest linebacking trio in the league. Even if Woodyard needs more time off to heal, Miller and Danny Trevathan can use their speed and skill to compensate, with Paris Lenon and perhaps Irving in the middle as solid tacklers. The Broncos’ linebackers have accounted for only 2.5 sacks out of the team’s 17 — on pace for only seven on the season. Miller collected 18.5 sacks by himself last season — his value as a blitzer simply can’t be overstated.
Shaun Phillips has done a brilliant job as a pass-rusher, netting 5.5 sacks without playing every down. But the 32-year old, 10-year veteran needs help. Robert Ayers has 4.5 sacks, but he’s been hampered by a shoulder injury. Malik Jackson (3.5 sacks) is emerging as a playmaker at end, softening the blow of Derek Wolfe’s second-year regression. But with Miller’s game-changing speed around the edge, he’s like having an additional defensive end on the field — and takes pressure off the rest of the line accordingly.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, Miller’s impact will be bigger here than anywhere else on the defense. Even though the Broncos have 17 sacks — good for 11th in the league — they’re sacking the quarterback only 6.8 percent of the time they drop back to pass. That percentage ranks only 20th in the NFL. That also validates what fans have seen too often this season — quarterbacks standing tall in the pocket for six or more seconds; more than enough time for skilled passers to dissect Denver’s secondary. Champ Bailey performed well in his return from injury last week, and his positional skills and game-smarts are as sharp as ever. His speed isn’t, however — after all, he’s 35 years old. Miller’s ability to disrupt the quarterback shortens the time that Bailey and fellow backs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris Jr., Rahim Moore and Duke Ihenacho need to stick like glue to their coverage assignments — and just a second or two fewer can make the difference between a big play and an harmless incompletion.
Von Miller had 18.5 sacks last season, and given his career averages, the Broncos probably missed out on seven sacks from him in his absence. Those seven sacks would have vaulted the Broncos to second in the league in that department, lowering opposing completion rates, yards and probably touchdowns in the process.
Looking past the Broncos’ gleaming, undefeated record for a moment, it’s obvious how much Miller’s absence hurt the team as a whole and the defense in particular. But the past can’t be changed. Miller’s back, and he’s got a lot to prove — to his teammates, his fans, and to the entire NFL.
Simply picking up where he left off would be a great start.
Shawn Drotar is in his 20th year as a national sportswriter and editor, and his work has appeared on ESPN, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, Yahoo! Sports and in the USA Today, among others. He’s appeared on television on ESPNEWS and the Altitude Sports Network, and can currently be heard on Denver’s KKFN-FM/104.3 The Fan as a sports-talk radio host.
Follow Shawn on Twitter: @sdrotar