The Denver Broncos have played 11 games so far this season. They hold a 9-2 record and are considered a Super Bowl contender out of the AFC.
They had to play the first six games of the season without All-Pro linebacker Von Miller. He was suspended during that time for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Miller returned to the field in Week 7 against the Colts, and the defense has been sparked by his return.
When Miller returned, he immediately spoke about the personal growth he made during his suspension: “I’ve definitely made mistakes in the past. All I can ask is judge me for my actions going forward. If we can do that—I know it might be hard, but I know if we can do that—I’m positive that I [can] gain everybody’s trust back.”
He also grew physically during his time away. Miller gained 15 pounds of muscle while he was suspended. The idea was the added weight would help him as a run defender.
Earlier this season, Miller talked about the added weight giving him a better bull rush.
"I think the Von before had bull rush, too. I think that guy was pretty good, too. But the Von now—I feel like I’ve definitely got my body in shape. And with the added experience from last year and the same defensive coordinator, there are a lot of factors that go into it. I’m just hoping that the production comes this week. We’ve been playing solid defense since I’ve been back, and I don’t see any reason why it will stop this weekend," said Miller.
Miller is bigger, stronger and still lightning fast. However, he doesn’t feel like he’s reached his peak just yet.
Before the Patriots game in Week 12, Miller talked about his progress since returning to the field in Week 7.
“I’m a work in progress. I definitely feel like I could be more productive. I got to have better practices, and I think that it will carry over into the game," said Miller. "That’s the easiest thing to fix is myself. I go out there every day motivated to get better. It’s been like that since day one and this week is no different.”
An improved Miller is great for the Broncos defense, and that is a nightmare scenario for opposing offensive linemen.
Let’s take a look at the numbers and the film to see how Miller’s return has impacted the Broncos defense.
Without Miller (6 Games)
The numbers below represent how the Broncos defense performed in the first six games of the season without Miller.
NFL Season Average
Yards Allowed per Game
Yards Allowed per Play
Pass Yards Allowed Per Game
Net Yards Passing Per Attempt
Sacks per Attempt Percentage
The play below shows how teams were treating Phillips when they didn’t have to worry about Miller. The Raiders are able to easily stop Phillips because they double-team him. Phillips did not have any sacks in this game.
The Broncos defense struggled to make impact plays without Miller. Instead of using Miller against left tackles, they had to rely on Robert Ayers instead. Ayers is a decent player, but his skill set is nowhere near that of Miller’s.
The pass rush simply wasn’t as dangerous without Miller on the field.
With Miller (5 Games)
The statistics below represent how the Broncos defense has performed since the return of Miller. This gives us a fairly accurate “before” and “after” picture of Denver’s defense.
NFL Season Average
The play below shows how Miller can impact the game and free up the other rushers on the defense.
The Chiefs commit two players to Miller at the snap. The tight end puts a hefty chip block on Miller before releasing into a route. As the picture shows, left tackle Branden Albert is locked onto Miller. He is locked on so much that he completely ignores Danny Trevathan rushing from the inside.
Phillips is able to easily beat the right tackle, and he meets Malik Jackson at the quarterback. Alex Smith had no shot to complete a pass on this play as the Broncos were on top of him in the blink of an eye.
On this one play, Miller essentially freed up three other rushers. Jackson was thrilled to have Miller back, and he talked about it earlier this season.
"It’s awesome having them [Woodyard and Miller] together. They communicate well, especially with [LB] Danny [Trevathan] back there," said Jackson. "All three of them just talk like it’s nothing. They’re so used to each other being there, and they just know how to talk without even talking. So it’s one of those things where they can point and each of them knows what they’re talking about. So it’s just great chemistry and great for us."
His coaches, teammates and Broncos fans are thrilled to have Miller back. The only people who aren’t so happy about his return are the opponents he faces each week.
Projected Over 16 Games
The numbers show Miller’s impact on the defense over the last five games. Now let’s take a look at what they look like projected over a full 16 game season. This should give us an idea of where Miller is at compared to his level of play over the course of his career.
Projected Over 16 Games
As you can see, Miller’s tackles this year projected over 16 games (70.4) would be a career-high total (68 tackles in 2012). It’s also clear to see that his sack total projected over 16 games (12.8) would be ahead of what he achieved as a rookie (11.5), but it falls short of his incredible total last year (18.5).
Miller spoke earlier this year about how far off he is to being the player he was last year:
“I really don’t think I have scratched the surface of what I can be. I have a great coaching staff with [interim head coach/defensive coordinator] Coach Del Rio, [Linebackers], Coach [Richard] Smith and everybody we got around me. [I have] great teammates around me that motivate me. I’m just going to keep on working and take it one game at a time.”
Miller continues to get stronger as the season goes on. On Monday, interim head coach Jack Del Rio commented on Miller’s performance against the Patriots.
“He was very impactful last night," said Del Rio. "He worked hard during the week in terms of the way he prepared himself, and I thought that we saw that in his performance so that’s a positive sign.”
He finished the game against the Patriots with eight tackles (six solo), two sacks, two tackles for a loss, three quarterback hits, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
Without Miller on the field, the Broncos get pressure (sacks or duress) on only 26 percent of dropbacks. Opposing quarterbacks average a 60.2 percent completion percentage without Miller on the field. They also average a healthy 8.4 yards per attempt when Miller is not in the game.
With Miller on the field, the Broncos get pressure on 34 percent of dropbacks. Opposing quarterbacks see a lower completion percentage, averaging 54.2 percent when Miller is in the lineup. They also have lower yards per attempt, averaging 5.5 yards when facing Miller.
The Broncos simply play better when Miller is on the field.
Looking at the stats and the film, it becomes clear the type of impact Miller has made on the Broncos defense. After his big game against the Patriots, Broncos fans should just consider this a sign of things to come.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.