Injuries are part of the game of football, but there is no denying that certain players are tough to replace. Star players are nearly impossible to replace during the season, teams just have to do their best to patch things together. The best a team can ask for is to have a serviceable replacement and hope that the other players around him elevate their play.
The Denver Broncos had to perform without outside linebacker Von Miller for the first six games and went 6-0, but that doesn’t minimize the impact he had on their defense. Losing Miller right as the team headed into the playoffs could have been disastrous.
A collapse by the defense might have enabled opponents to keep pace with the Broncos’ offensive production or to control the clock to limit it. It happened a few times with Miller, so the possibility of it happening more frequently with him out remained a real possibility.
Instead, the Broncos’ defense has been spurring their Super Bowl run.
Linebacker Danny Trevathan has replaced Miller’s knack for making big plays, Nate Irving has done well replacing Miller against the run and defensive end Shaun Phillips has proved to be valuable as a pass-rusher. The Broncos will need all three players to continue their fine play in the Super Bowl.
In their first six games without Miller, the Broncos allowed 2.03 points per drive. Had that trend continued, the Broncos would have finished 24th in the NFL in that statistic. With Miller, the Broncos allowed just 1.82 points per drive and finished 18th in the league at 1.83 points per drive allowed.
At roughly their season average of 12.9 drives against per game, Miller was worth about 2.7 points per game to the Broncos without adjusting for strength of opponent. Once making that adjustment, the impact would be even greater.
|Split||Points/Drive Allowed||# of Games Under Opponent Points/Drive Average|
|First 6 Games||2.03||1 of 6|
|8+ Games with Miller||1.82||4 of 8|
|Last 4 without Miller||1.50||4 of 4|
|Playoffs||1.94||2 of 2|
The Broncos held only one of their first six opponents under their season average in points per drive. That team was also the Philadelphia Eagles, who switched from quarterback Michael Vick to Nick Foles with great success after playing the Broncos.
In the little over eight games Miller played, the Broncos held their opponent under their average points per drive in half of them. The Broncos lost two of the four games they didn’t hold their opponents under their average points per drive.
Without Miller, it would have been reasonable for the Broncos to revert to the type of defensive performance they had over their first six games. Instead, the Broncos are averaging just 1.5 points-per-drive allowed in the nearly four games since Miller tore his ACL.
In the playoffs, the Broncos have allowed 1.94 points per drive. That’s less than their first six games when the only playoff team they played was the Eagles. The third-best offense they played Weeks 1-6 was the 23rd ranked Oakland Raiders (by points per drive).
Impressive was the fact that the Broncos held both the San Diego Chargers and the New England Patriots below their season averages in points per drive. The Chargers finished second only to the Broncos in points per drive, and the Patriots finished ninth.
The defense has picked up the slack when the Broncos have needed it most. It’s a small sample, but the NFL is full of small samples—the playoffs in particular.
One of the constants for the Broncos this season has been Trevathan. Without him, it would have been very difficult for the Broncos to survive without Miller’s services. Trevathan has picked up the slack both as a run defender and in coverage.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), Trevathan hasn’t had a negatively graded game since Week 12 and only has two all season. Trevathan led the team in tackles during the regular season and has continued to in the postseason.
Trevathan intercepted three passes and forced three fumbles in 2013—only Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David eclipsed his six forced turnovers. DeAndre Levy equaled Trevathan but was otherwise unmatched.
One of Miller’s underrated qualities is his ability to stop the run. Everybody knows how great he is as a pass-rusher, but not everyone realizes how great he is thwarting the opposition’s rushing attack.
If not for Trevathan, the Broncos would have been in trouble against run-heavy teams like the Chargers and Patriots in the playoffs. It’s worth noting that the Broncos also lost defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson to an injury, putting the pressure on the linebackers to stop the run.
Trevathan’s ability was on display against the Patriots, his plays key in shutting down running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Julian Edelman. On multiple occasions, Trevathan’s play was a big part of shutting down entire drives.
On a couple plays late in first half, Trevathan makes underrated plays for the Broncos. In the first, Trevathan takes on the lead block, sheds the block and makes the tackle in the running lane. If not for Trevathan, it’s likely a sizeable gain for the Patriots on the ground.
A few plays later, Trevathan fills the running lane and brings down Blount after only a couple yards. The disciplined Trevathan knows he can’t overrun his gap. Once in position, he makes the solid tackle.
The Patriots couldn’t get the running game going because Trevathan proved to be very difficult to block, either with a lead-blocking fullback or with an offensive lineman. The Patriots had to go to the air, but Trevathan made his presence felt there as well.
Edelman ran a quick crossing route that he caught in open space. From there, it’s up to the defense to converge. Pulled deep into coverage by his man, Trevathan is in poor position to make a tackle in the open field against the faster and more agile wide receiver.
Had Trevathan read the play a little slower, the Patriots may have been able to get a block on him that would have allowed Edelman to score a touchdown. After a sack on the following play, the Patriots had to settle for a field goal.
Trevathan’s ability to quickly read and react to what he is seeing in coverage isn’t just something he did well against the Patriots. Trevathan’s ability in coverage was a big reason Chargers tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green combined for four catches for 17 yards in the divisional round.
Asked to cover Green one-on-one, Trevathan quickly realized the ball was going to Gates. Trevathan quickly came over to help and was able to make a solid tackle on Gates without letting him gain extra yardage.
Trevathan’s work in coverage has been exceptional. Not only has he covered well, but he’s also done a great job making up for the weaknesses around him.
Without Miller forcing hurried throws, the Broncos have had more struggles in pass coverage. Trevathan picking up the slack has been a key reason why the Broncos have had such a successful postseason.
As far as replacing Miller, Irving is the player who has taken his spot at strong-side linebacker. Irving is playing only about half the time, but the role he is playing is an important one.
While Trevathan has picked up the slack in multiple areas, Phillips has stepped up as an edge rusher and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton has become a nightmare for opposing interior linemen—Irving has flown a little under the radar.
“Nate Irving, I think he'll come in and do a solid job,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said after losing Miller via Mike Klis of The Denver Post. “But a guy like Von Miller, you can't replace what he can do on the field."
As it turns out, Harris may have undersold Irving and the ability of his team to replace Miller. A month later, the Broncos would also be replacing Harris because of the same injury.
Irving’s job is to be Miller when he isn’t rushing the quarterback. That means playing the run and occasionally dropping into coverage.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), Irving has allowed just three receptions for 16 yards this postseason. Only being targeted three times this postseason is a clear indication Irving has been doing his job in coverage.
More importantly, Irving’s role against the Chargers and Patriots was stopping the run. Like Trevathan, Irving has been instrumental in helping the Broncos stuff the run to keep opponents from successfully milking the clock.
Considering the Seattle Seahawks were one of the most run-heavy teams in the league in 2013, the continued production of Irving, Trevathan and Knighton are going to be among the keys to winning the Super Bowl.
On one play against the Chargers, Irving blew Gates off the line and stuffed running back Danny Woodhead. The play set the tone for the rest of the game as the Chargers had trouble getting yards on first or second down to setup manageable third downs.
From there, Phillips went to work on Chargers slow-footed right tackle D.J. Fluker, and the Broncos never looked back. Irving wasn’t quite as effective against the Patriots, but in the four games since Miller was hurt, he has been good in three of them.
Getting hot at the right time seems to be the key to winning the Super Bowl, and the Broncos have been playing their best football of the season on the defensive side of the ball. The Baltimore Ravens are just the most recent example of the team getting hot at the right time winning it all.
The last time quarterback Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl, his much-maligned defense caught fire at the right time. Judging from the last couple of weeks, history may be repeating itself.