Von Miller became one of the most effective pass-rushers in the game during his rookie season and earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after recording 11.5 sacks in 2011. It was an impressive season for any player, but for a rookie, it was very impressive.
It's worth considering if Miller's rookie season can be replicated. It was that good.
Great seasons sometimes come and go, and players might spend years trying to replicate a great season they had when they were younger. Opponents will have had all offseason to study Miller's weaknesses, and he will need to continue to elevate his game to duplicate last year's breakout campaign.
Make the Most of Expanded Opportunities
The addition of Peyton Manning brings a legitimate passing attack to Denver, and the Broncos could find themselves playing with a lead on a more consistent basis or at least getting into shootouts with the opposition.
A pass-centric game is only going to expand Miller's opportunities to rush the quarterback.
Miller had the highest percentage of pass rush snaps to passing plays of any 4-3 linebacker and was second only to Kamerion Wimbley in total pass rush snaps, according to ProFootballFocus. Still, additional opportunities to rush the quarterback could present themselves. The top 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defense ends typically rushed the quarterback 100 more times than Miller.
The additional snaps alone could push Miller's sack total up in 2012 and help him replicate and potentially improve upon his 2011 season.
Reduce Mental Errors
One area Miller can improve upon in 2012 is penalties. Miller had six penalties in 2011, and that tied him for the most penalties from the 4-3 outside linebacker position with his teammate, D.J. Williams. Miller was also fined twice for hits on Carson Palmer and Mark Sanchez and once for an unnecessary roughness penalty in the playoffs (ESPN).
There is no doubt it is hard to stay penalty-free when the league protects quarterbacks the way it does, but it is possible, as Jared Allen had 24 sacks last season and only had three penalties. Only three players with more sacks than Miller had as many penalties. Miller can do better, and avoiding penalties and automatic first downs are only going to give Miller more opportunities to rush the quarterback in long down and distance situations.
According to Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post, offenses used Miller's aggressiveness against him by running plays underneath his outside rush and by sending receivers on patterns just behind Miller.
As Legwold put it, "He simply took too many false steps at the snap of the ball and wasn't quick enough to recover, the result of trying to learn on the job — an often unforgiving way to do it for a rookie, even one as talented as Miller."
As Miller improves in reading offenses, he'll be able to stay on the field more and will have additional opportunities to make plays.
Miller was on fire from Week 7 to 12, and the Broncos won all six games, but during then, he hurt his thumb and played with a cast down the stretch. His effectiveness took a nosedive playing with a cast, and the Broncos stumbled into the playoffs.
In 2012, Miller's thumb injury will be a non-factor, but it does highlight how important it is for Miller to stay healthy. Miller uses his hands to disengage from offensive lineman and his speed and flexibility to get past them. Any injury to his hands, arms or legs could result in decreased productivity and make it difficult for him to repeat 2011's performance.
Be More Consistent
A big reason for the success of the Broncos in 2011 was the defense. Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller combined to pressure opposing quarterbacks into submission. When Miller didn't rush the quarterback effectively, the team didn't win.
When examining how good Miller was last season, you might stumble upon ProFootballFocus pass rush statistics, which includes sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback pressures. What you might not realize is just how Miller's productivity correlated with the team's success.
In fact, in all but one game that Miller had more than two combined sacks, hits and pressures on the quarterback, the Broncos won. In any game that Miller had two or less combined sacks, hits and pressures, the Broncos lost.
The only exceptions were the playoff game against the Patriots and a Week 4 loss to the Packers.
If Miller can figure out how to play more consistently, he should have no problem replicating his rookie year. Consistency combined with his natural talent should result in even better production in 2012.
Improve In Coverage
Von Miller basically excelled in two roles. As a strong-side linebacker, Miller was more than capable defender against the run, and his outside pass rush is largely what earned him Rookie of the Year honors.
According to ProFootballFocus, Miller had about the same number of snaps defending the run as rushing the quarterback. In total, Miller had 1,016 snaps in 2012, with 427 against the run, 468 rushing the quarterback and 121 in pass coverage. Miller dropped back in coverage more than 10 times against run-centric teams like Oakland, but kept himself out of coverage against passing teams.
ProFootballFocus graded Miller favorably in coverage, but that could have been different if he had been in coverage more against the elite passing teams.
Miller has proven his worth on the football field, but he can take his game to the next level by developing his coverage skills. It's much easier to scheme against a player when the opposition knows they are going to be pass-rushing or staying in the box to defend the run. Miller is talented enough to be productive as he is, but forcing the quarterback to account for Miller in the passing game and confusing the protection schemes will only make Miller more torturous on the opposition.
As Miller develops his coverage skills, there will be less and less of a reason for the Broncos to take him off the field and more opportunities for Miller to use his playmaking ability.
Develop Additional Pass Rush Moves
With the lockout shortened offseason, the Broncos and then-defensive coordinator Dennis Allen had a limited window to develop and teach the young players new techniques. Like every team, the Broncos simply took what they had and tried to put them in the best position to be successful.
Miller's best asset is his speed around the edge, and prior to his thumb injury, he also used his hands well to disengage from offensive linemen. Middle linebacker Joe Mays said, "The way the guy can just spin, dip and rip, just do all those types of things, I can't even explain it." (via Lindsay Jones of the Denver Post)
Most of Miller's pass rush moves are speed moves that utilize his quickness off the edge, and these moves can always be refined and expanded.
According to Legwold, Miller is working on a greater variety of counter moves this offseason.
The addition of more variety will only make Miller's speed moves that much more dangerous as the offensive linemen begin to think about all the other moves Miller could make to get past them. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio knows a thing or two about linebackers and the pass rush, and Miller would be wise to soak up as much knowledge from his new defensive coordinator as possible.
It's scary to think Miller's abilities can get even better with more work on his technique. The Broncos are probably excited to see what a full offseason with Del Rio will do for Miller and how that will translate to an improved defense in 2012.
If Miller can take advantage of additional opportunities, reduce his mental errors, stay healthy, be more consistent, improve in coverage and develop his pass rush moves, he'll easily replicate his rookie year.
In fact, there is a very good chance he'll actually improve upon it.