As long as quarterback Peyton Manning is healthy, the Denver Broncos will be fine. At least that’s what every fan in Denver wants to believe with the news that star outside linebacker Von Miller is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Manning has been so good this season that he’s broken the NFL record for touchdown passes with a game still to play. The Broncos only went 6-0 to start the season while Miller was forced to sit due to suspension because they averaged 44.2 points per game and 476 yards on offense during that span.
While Manning has the ability to keep the Broncos’ hopes of hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy alive, losing Miller is a huge blow. With the defense already struggling, Denver was going to lean heavily on Miller to make big plays in the postseason.
"When he was out, we were still undefeated. We were able to still win as a team," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. via the team’s official website. "Guys just have to step up and pick up the slack."
Compared with the first six games of the season, the Broncos are nowhere near as strong on defense. The Broncos weren’t even particularly strong for the first six games, and Miller has covered up many of the defense's weaknesses since he returned.
A Defense in Flux
The Broncos have had several key injuries to their defensive starters that make them ill-equipped to handle the loss of Miller. Cornerback Champ Bailey just returned from a foot injury that has plagued him all season, but there's no way to know how he'll perform.
Defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and free safety Rahim Moore are now on injured reserve, with the latter designated to return. Moore may be able to return later in the playoffs after undergoing emergency surgery on his leg in November, but that remains very much in question.
Defensive end Derek Wolfe is also out for an undisclosed period of time with what the team lists as an illness, but stems from a seizure-like episode he suffered nearly a month ago. There is no telling when or if Wolfe will be able to play again—although the fact that he hasn't been put on injured reserve is a good sign.
Playing in the nickel defense in Bailey’s place until Sunday was rookie Kayvon Webster, who is now out with a broken thumb. Webster may be able to play with a cast, but relying on a rookie cornerback with a physical limitation like that probably isn’t the best idea.
|DT||Kevin Vickerson||Sylvester Williams|
|DE||Derek Wolfe||Malik Jackson|
|FS||Rahim Moore||Mike Adams|
|CB||Kayvon Webster||Champ Bailey|
|DE||Von Miller||Shaun Phillips/Nate Irving|
|Broncos Depth Chart|
Then there’s two starters who were recently benched, linebacker Wesley Woodyard and safety Duke Ihenacho. Woodyard went from being an every-down player in Week 12 to only playing about half the defensive snaps the past few weeks. Ihenacho’s role changed two weeks ago and he’s played only about one-third of the defensive snaps, but he did start Sunday against the Houston Texans.
Miller's return from suspension also enabled Shaun Phillips to become a complementary pass-rusher. As the primary pass-rusher, Phillips had 5.5 sacks in six games. In the nine games since Miller has returned, Phillips has added just 4.5 more sacks to bring his total to 10.
Phillips is a good player, but he’s not on the same level as Miller. Even if he was, the Broncos don’t really have a secondary pass-rusher to replace the contribution of Phillips. For six games they were able to use players like defensive lineman Malik Jackson in sub packages. Jackson, who has five sacks, is now starting.
Defensive end Robert Ayers, who has 5.5 sacks on the season, lost snaps when Miller returned and is the likely beneficiary of more playing time. Jackson and Ayers have a combined 2.5 sacks since Week 7 when Miller returned.
Measuring Miller’s Impact
Losing Miller is a lot more than just losing five sacks. Miller is not only a great pass-rusher, but he is also great in run support.
Miller’s 40.2 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) makes him the top-ranked outside linebacker and fifth-ranked defensive player despite playing in only eight full games. Behind J.J. Watt, there probably isn’t a more dominant defensive player in football.
|Defensive Performance with/without Miller vs. Opponent Average|
|Statistic||With Miller||With Miller vs. Opp Avg||Without Miller||Without Miller vs. Opp Average|
|Points Allowed Per Game||26.8||+1.8||26.3||+4.6|
|Yards Allowed Per Game||344.5||-18.1||407.5||+72.7|
To truly measure Miller’s impact, we need to look at how Denver’s defense performed with and without him. Excluding Sunday's game against the Texans, Denver’s defense allowed 26.3 points per game and 407.5 yards per game without Miller and 26.8 points per game and 344.5 yards with him in the lineup.
In five of the six games Denver played without Miller to start the season, the Broncos failed to hold their opponent under their season scoring average. The only team they were able hold under their season scoring average was the Philadelphia Eagles, whose offense has taken off since switching quarterbacks a few weeks after playing the Broncos.
It appears that Denver’s defense actually got worse in terms of allowing opponents to score, but that obviously isn’t adjusted for the quality of the opponents. When that is taken into account, Miller’s value jumps to about 2.8 points—or roughly a field goal. The Broncos lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs last year by a field goal, so the difference shouldn’t be minimized.
The yardage difference was also more dramatic. Without Miller, Broncos opponents piled up 72.7 more yards per game on average when compared with their season average. The Broncos also failed to hold any team below their season average in yardage output.
With Miller, the Broncos were able to hold opponents to an average of 18.1 fewer yards per game than their season averages and only the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs had more offensive yards than they normally do. At the time, tight end Rob Gronkowski was healthy for the Patriots and gave them an offensive boost.
Miller’s positive impact on Denver’s defense despite the losses of Vickerson, Wolfe and Moore are obvious, if not that dramatic. To get complete measurement of Miller’s impact, we’ll have to look a little deeper.
The best players rise to the moment and play big in big games. In Denver’s biggest game this season, Miller sacked Patriots quarterback Tom Brady twice, forced a fumble and scooped up another fumble and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown.
Miller’s fumble return and forced fumble led to a 14-0 lead early in the first quarter. The Broncos would collapse in the second half and lose, but it wasn’t because of Miller.
With the Broncos trailing 28-24 with about eight minutes left in the game and facing a critical third down deep in their own territory, it was Miller who rescued the team. Had the Patriots scored a touchdown, the game-tying drive by Manning to force overtime would not have been possible.
Miller used an inside spin move to get around the right tackle and forced Brady to get rid of the ball quickly. Brady had to fit it into a tight window and Miller’s pressure resulted in a pass that was a little too high for Julian Edelman.
Now consider what would have happened if Miller didn’t make this play.
The Patriots had the perfect play called to take advantage of Denver’s defense and safety Mike Adams. Gronkowski was running up the left seam, forcing Adams to make a choice on his coverage. Adams had to cover Edelman, which would have left Gronkowski open for a touchdown if the route had time to develop. The quick pressure never let Gronkowski get to his spot and the Patriots settled for a field goal.
The Broncos don’t have another player that can provide the kind of quick pressure Miller did on this play and will have to rely heavily on the blitz. In this case, the Broncos would have only been in more trouble in coverage had they rushed five or six instead of just four defenders.
Good quarterbacks like Brady are tough to beat, but they are even more difficult to beat when you need to blitz to get pressure. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brady has thrown nine touchdowns this season without an interception when blitzed.
The Broncos will need players like Ayers and the recently signed Jeremy Mincey to generate pressure, use timely blitzes and get better play from the secondary to have any hope of surviving defensively without Miller.
For a team that is currently ranked 22nd in points allowed, losing a player like Miller is a coaching staff’s worst nightmare. Only two of the last 10 Super Bowl winners had a worse defense than the Broncos—the 2011 New York Giants and the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.
Oddly enough, it was Manning who was the quarterback of that Colts team and he threw just three touchdowns in four postseason games with seven interceptions and still won the Super Bowl. What people don’t also remember was the Colts' much-maligned defense held opponents to just 16.3 points per game in the postseason, so anything is possible.
What’s more likely is that Manning will have to carry the Broncos in the playoffs just like he has all season. The Broncos hope to get big contributions from defenders that haven’t played particularly well this season, but they can’t rely on them in big games. It’s not exactly the best recipe for a Super Bowl victory, but it’s the only one the Broncos have.