Unless you've been binge-watching The Walking Dead on Netflix for the past week, you've no doubt heard that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is squaring off against his former team on Sunday night. Strike that, you probably received a Team Stream notification—or seven—on your iPad about it.
You know all about the overblown comments made by Jim Irsay, the outspoken owner of the Indianapolis Colts. The noise pollution of Manning vs. Andrew Luck has violated your eardrums more times than you can count. It was all a bit fascinating, but now you are screaming for a conclusion about as badly as you were around Episode 10 of Season 3.
Maybe you forgot about the real story and got lost in the characters. Just in case you got distracted, the real difference-maker in this game is going to be linebacker Von Miller, who will be activated in time to play on Sunday after serving a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Miller somehow became the forgotten storyline, but come Sunday night, that will all change. Miller is Denver's not-so-secret weapon against the Colts—capable of taking over games by making the opposing quarterback's life a living hell.
Miller scares opposing quarterbacks, even one who is 6'5", 230 pounds and can run like a gazelle. Luck is a pocket passer with sneaky athleticism, but no one is going to mistake him for a guy who can run away from Miller.
Luck Under Pressure
With Miller in the lineup last season, the Broncos had one of the most dominant pass rushes in the NFL. The Broncos sacked opposing quarterbacks 52 times and had a sack on 8.5 percent of their opponents' pass attempts, first and second in the NFL, respectively.
|Broncos Pass Rush With and Without Von Miller|
|Comparison||Sack Percentage||Net Yards Per Attempt||Interception %|
|2012 with Miller||8.5% (2)||5.2 (1)||2.9% (11)|
|2013 without Miller||6.3% (21)||7.6 (31)||3.6% (10)|
|Difference||-2.2% (-19)||-2.4 (-30)||+0.7 (+1)|
The pressure obviously helped the secondary because the Broncos also allowed a league-low 5.2 net passing yards per attempt. Without Miller, the secondary and pass rush have struggled, but there is no reason they can't approach last year's numbers with Miller back on the field.
Luck is like a lot of quarterbacks—he doesn't perform as well under pressure. Last season, Luck was the fourth-most-pressured quarterback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and was ranked 26th out of 27 qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage under pressure.
With a new offensive system in 2013 and rebuilt offensive line, Luck shouldn't be facing as much pressure, but he is. Per Pro Football Focus data, Luck has faced pressure on 2.9 percent more of his dropbacks than last year.
|Andrew Luck Under Pressure|
|Year||Pressure %||Completion %||Sack %|
|2012||38.1% (24)||39.9% (26)||14.9% (21)|
|2013||41.0% (10)||49.2% (10)||14.6% (22)|
|Difference||-1.9% (-14)||+9.3% (+16)||-0.3 (-1)|
|profootballfocus.com (ranking of qualified)|
Luck has perhaps learned when to concede a sack, because his sack percentage is up from 6.1 percent last year in Bruce Arians' vertical offense to 6.5 percent this year in a more conservative scheme under offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. Perhaps that is why Luck has been able to complete 9.3 percent more of his passes under pressure this season.
Regardless of Luck's improvement passing under pressure, the Broncos should be able to win the game if they can put some heat on him. Putting pressure on the quarterback is one of those goals every team has every week, but the Broncos actually have the personnel to do it with Miller returning.
Miller vs. Cherilus
One of the reasons the Colts gave right tackle Gosder Cherilus a lucrative contact in free agency was to protect Luck. Pro Football Focus has given Cherilus a pass-blocking grade of 3.9 this season and an overall grade of 5.0 (subscription required).
Cherilus has also faced Miller once before—back in 2011—when Miller was a rookie and Tim Tebow was the quarterback of the Broncos. Miller has only gotten more dangerous, so Cherilus will surely have his hands full.
According to Pro Football Focus, Miller had just one hurry against Cherilus and was given a negative-1.1 pass-rushing grade in their head-to-head battle. That's bad news for the Broncos, but sometimes stats like this can still be a bit misleading.
The Detroit Lions won the game, 45-10, and Denver's offense was terrible, but Miller still found a way to make an impact. For example, Miller killed one of Detroit’s drives with three impact plays in a row.
First, Miller chased down tight end Brandon Pettigrew after initially rushing inside for a four-yard loss. Miller's ability to get after the quarterback is really highlighted in a long-yardage situations, so once Miller made this play, the situation favored Miller even more.
On 2nd-and-14, the Lions came out in the shotgun formation to give Matthew Stafford some cushion. Stafford takes a quick drop and zips a short pass to Pettigrew for a five-yard gain, but it's a good thing he threw quickly.
As you may notice, Miller absolutely destroys Cherilus with his speed to the outside. Any pass that would have taken longer to develop would have been a sack for Miller. When you can force a quarterback to throw out of the shotgun, that's the definition of elite pass-rushing skills.
On 3rd-and-9, Miller goes inside, disrupts the pocket and forces Stafford to roll to his right. Stafford is ultimately sacked by Ryan McBean on the play, and the Lions are forced to punt. These three plays were consecutive, which really highlights how Miller can take over a game.
Miller is a difference-maker, a weapon of mass destruction who makes every blocker look like they are moving at zombie speed. Slowing down Manning is tough, but slowing down Manning and Miller is even tougher.
The Broncos will also be getting a well-rested Miller on Sunday, not one who has been subjected to the abuse of the past six games. Never underestimate the power of fresh legs in the NFL, especially for a team playing on the road.
The Broncos will turn Miller loose against the Colts, and things could get ugly in a hurry if they aren't ready to slow him down. For all the talk about the quarterbacks, Miller has the potential to be every bit as important in this game.