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Has Von Miller Been a Difference-Maker for the Broncos?

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Has Von Miller Been a Difference-Maker for the Broncos?
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos got linebacker Von Miller back from his six-game suspension two weeks ago desperately needing defensive help. Denver's defense was highly suspect for the first six weeks of the season, so the hope was that getting Miller back would pay immediate dividends.

In Miller's debut, the Broncos allowed 39 points—not exactly the kind of performance one would expect from a quality defensive team. Last week, Denver's defense allowed just 14 points to a top-10 offense—a performance more in line with the unit's sky-high expectations upon Miller's return. 

Is Miller really the difference-maker just about everyone thought he would be for this defense, or is the inconsistency of the unit since he returned proof that he isn't?

There is no doubt that Miller is a great player, but the question is whether or not he's also a player who can create opportunities for his teammates to help get the defense back on track. Denver had a top-five defense last year, so if Miller hasn't been the missing ingredient, there must be another problem.

But before we go jumping to conclusions about what else might be ailing Denver's defense, it's worth exploring if Miller has or hasn't been a difference-maker. The Broncos allowed over 30 points per game a few times last year and still finished No. 4 in scoring defense, No. 2 in yards allowed and No. 1 in yards per play allowed.

 

By the Numbers

Technically, the Broncos have allowed 7.2 more points per game with Miller than without him this season. Having Miller also hasn't led to more sacks (as was expected), which has prompted some of the concerns about the defense.

The good news is that while the Broncos are allowing more points per game and not getting as many sacks, the defense has actually been more efficient. For example, the Broncos have allowed just 4.3 yards per play since Miller returned, but they allowed 6.1 yards per play prior to Miller's return.

Broncos Defense with/without Von Miller
Team Points/Game Yards Per Play Yards/Game Turnovers/Game Sacks/Game
With Von 33.5 4.3 300.0 3.0 2.5
Without Von 26.3 6.1 407.5 1.7 2.8
Difference 7.2 -1.8 -107.5 1.3 -0.3

pro-football-reference.com

Only three teams have allowed 6.1 yards per play or worse this season, but even the best defenses in the league are allowing more than 4.3 yards per play. In terms of yards per play, Miller's return has been the difference between an elite defense and one of the five worst in the league.

Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos gave up more points than usual, but they also turned the ball over. The Broncos actually held the Colts to 4.7 yards per play, which is significantly lower than the 5.4 yards per play they averaged coming into the game. 

Broncos Defense vs. Indianapolis & Washington
Team Points/Game Yards Per Play Yards/Game Turnovers/Game Sacks/Game
Indianapolis 25.8 5.4 346.5 0.8 2.2
Indianapolis vs. Broncos 39.0 4.7 334.0 1.0 2.0
Difference 13.2 -0.7 -12.5 0.2 -0.2
Washington 29.3 6.0 415.8 1.7 1.8
Washington vs. Broncos 14.0 3.8 266.0 5.0 3.0
Difference -15.3 -2.2 -149.8 3.3 1.2

pro-football-reference.com

Last week against Washington, the Broncos allowed just 3.8 yards per play to a team that averaged 6.0 yards per play coming into the game. Washington scored 15.3 fewer points than their season average, were held 149.8 yards under their season average and turned the ball over 3.3 more times than they normally would.

Perhaps most importantly, the Broncos got back to their pass-rushing ways against Washington, getting to quarterback Robert Griffin III three times and knocking him around all afternoon. Just like last year, the Broncos were really able to dominate defensively once the Broncos got the lead.

If you look purely at points per game allowed, Miller's contribution to the defense is missed. Over the past two weeks, the Broncos have forced more turnovers than any other team and only six teams have allowed fewer yards per play. 

We could leave it there, but there is one other possible reason for the defense's performances the last two weeks. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard missed the game against the Colts and returned last week against Washington, so his play might explain the difference more than Miller's performance. 

 

Tale of the Tape

Miller was given grade of 4.5 against the Colts and 6.2 against Washington by ProFootballFocus (subscription required). Woodyard was given a minus-3.6 grade against Washington and his replacement, Paris Lenon, a 0.8 grade against the Colts.

While not a perfect method of player grading, ProFootballFocus isn't going to be that far off. In this case, the tape absolutely affirms the grades they gave to Miller, who has been Denver's top-graded defender in each of the last two weeks.

Miller probably made two impact plays each quarter, but the following two are the best examples of how he helps his teammates. Miller is often pigeonholed as a pass-rusher, but he's much more than that.

With about five minutes left in the first quarter, Washington converted on 3rd-and-9. A converted third down is normally a bad thing for a defense, but in this case, luck had more to do with it than anything else.

Miller came off the left edge and was going up against right tackle Tyler Polumbus, whom ProFootballFocus has graded as Washington's second-best offensive player so far this year. Miller walks Polumbus back into RG3 and puts a lick on him as he throws.

RG3's pass comes out like a wounded duck, but somehow Santana Moss comes up with it and makes it past the first-down marker. Normally, a wounded duck like the pass that came out of RG3's hand is intercepted or, at worst, incomplete.

Miller's pass-rush prowess was on full display against Washington, as he also walked left tackle Trent Williams back into RG3 on a third down with about eight minutes left in the first quarter. Miller's added a pressure early in the fourth quarter that featured him beating two blocks and an RG3 pass that was nearly intercepted.

Of course, Miller also helped the Broncos go up by two scores in the fourth quarter with a strip sack of RG3. That play alone was huge because Washington could have gone down the field and tied the game.

Miller gives Denver's secondary a chance to drive on underneath throws knowing that he's not going to give the quarterback enough time throw deep. The result against Washington was five turnovers, including four interceptions and the strip sack. 

The nice thing about Miller is that he's not a one-trick pony—he can play the run. Miller tossed Washington's fullbacks and tight ends around like blocking bags and stonewalled their top-ranked rushing attack. Washington was held a full yard under their season per-carry average.

As you can see, Miller tosses aside the tight end, blows through the fullback and brings down Roy Helu for a loss of a yard. Washington would score one of its two touchdowns on this drive, but it had to convert four third downs and go for it on fourth down to make it happen.

As was expected, Miller is playing extremely well, and his presence is making things easier for all of his teammates. When Miller isn't making a play, he's drawing so much of the offense's attention that there is at least one extra pass-rusher or guy in coverage. 

All the talk after the game in Indianapolis about Miller not helping Denver turn things around defensively is bogus. Miller is without a doubt Denver's defensive most valuable player, and the Broncos should return to playing elite-level defense as long as he's healthy. 

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