Ravens vs. Broncos: Breaking Down Von Miller, Denver's League-Leading Pass Rush

John Rozum@Rozum27Correspondent IJanuary 11, 2013

Von Miller and the Broncos led pro football with 52 sacks this season.
Von Miller and the Broncos led pro football with 52 sacks this season.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Expect Von Miller and the Denver Broncos' NFL-leading pass rush to crush in Saturday's AFC playoff matchup.

The Baltimore Ravens field a balanced offense for Joe Flacco, as Ray Rice is certainly among the best all-around backs in pro football. At the same time, Miller and the Broncos stifled Baltimore to just 17 points during the regular season meeting.

And the Ravens had scored only three points through the first three quarters of that game.

Denver won, 34-17, and hit Flacco nine times with three sacks. The Broncos also forced one fumble of Baltimore's signal-caller and held Rice to a mere 38 rushing yards on 12 carries. Even more impressive was Jack Del Rio's defense limiting the Ravens to a dismal 1-of-12 on third down.

So, in preparation for the first divisional contest of the 2013 NFL postseason, let's rewind to the Week 15 matchup.

Note: All screen-caps are courtesy of NFL.com's Game Rewind.

One Reason Why Denver is So Good On Third Down

For the 2012 regular season, the Broncos ranked No. 1 in third down defense. Only allowing a conversion rate of 30.6 percent, Denver ranked No. 3 against the rush and pass and No. 2 overall.

But one reason for this impressive success on the most crucial of downs is how Denver gets into position. Facing a 2nd-and-1 late in the game vs. Baltimore, this down can be viewed as a free play for the offense.

Simply because: It's not that hard to gain one measly yard, right?

Wrong. At least not against Denver in 2012.

Here, the Ravens come out in a shotgun formation as they are facing a dire game situation: Must score quickly.

Denver calls a basic look by rushing four and dropping seven into coverage. Keep a close eye on the Cover 1 deep safety.

Notice the rush as Von Miller presses the offensive tackle into the backfield. Rookie Derek Wolfe is just holding ground until he can loop outside. In blue, Denver blankets Flacco's four intended targets with six cover players.

The key that maintains this coverage, though, is the safety eyeing the quarterback without getting looked off. In other words, he remains in the middle of the field while gradually back-pedaling.

Front seven view of the developing rush.

With Miller continuing to force his way inside, Wolfe slips out to get edge pressure and contain.

The coverage holds true by bracketing Flacco's four receivers with the six defenders underneath. Again, we see the Cover 1 safety—circled in blue—maintaining eye contact on the quarterback, but also remaining disciplined by settling in the middle of the field.

Wolfe scraps around the edge and records an easy sack. Check out Miller—circled in yellow—and how far inside he was able to press. This collapsed the pocket and forced Flacco right into Wolfe.

Now, had Flacco possessed better pocket awareness, we would have seen him step up sooner and take a hit while dumping the ball off to Rice in the checkdown. 

There are weaknesses to every defense, regardless of the call. That said, Denver's ability to get faster pressure and isolate in coverage is the entire defensive unit contributing to controlling the line of scrimmage.

Discipline is What Truly Makes a Good Pass Rush

The Broncos are an aggressive defense.

Because no defense leads pro football in sacks, and ranks inside the Top 5 against the run and pass, without attacking the line of scrimmage.

And when facing an aggressive defense, an offense's best play-call to manipulate that attack is with a screen-pass. The play is designed to draw the rushers upfield at the quarterback, and he then dumps the ball off to the back with lots of green to run and multiple lead-blockers.

On this play, Baltimore sees itself with a 2nd-and-7 late in the first quarter. Denver leads 3-0 and has already forced the Ravens to fumble or punt on their first three possessions.

Considering Rice's dynamics as a ball-carrier, his reliability on screens is quite apparent. So, the Ravens try to pull a fast one against the NFL's best pass-rushing unit.

It's a simple off-set backfield with Flacco under center and two receivers out wide. A play-action fake is commencing.

This is the first evidence of Denver's discipline. Despite all three linebackers keeping their eyes on the fake, each are also sinking into their coverage responsibilities. Football terminology is keeping one's head on a swivel.

From behind the offense no one falls for the fake. Why? Because the true key to reading an offense is reacting to the offensive line.

Now yes, this read must be made within what feels like nanoseconds when on the field. Nevertheless, the line can't cross the line of scrimmage on a passing play—or head upfield on a screen until the pass is completed. It's a simple rule and you wonder why so many linebackers fall for play-fakes.

The Broncos 'backers know how to read the line and react accordingly, period.

Watching the play develop, the Broncos form a shield at the intermediate level. At the same time, there's no immediate pressure on Flacco as he wanders to his right in targeting Rice for the screen.

Denver, despite rushing four, quickly recognizes the screen and doesn't get sucked into the backfield. Only one attacks Flacco to force the pass, and everyone else instead redirects toward Rice slipping underneath his linemen.

So, where does Rice have to go? Absolutely nowhere.

Teams that field a consistently dominant pass rush, but fail to defend well against the pass lack discipline. This why screens end up working, because a front four gets excited about a free pass to the quarterback.

The end result is a back darting downfield for a boatload of yards after the catch. Then, when another play-action occurs, that same front four won't attack upfield when needed. The pocket holds up and the quarterback steps into an accurate throw.

No opponent gets that ineptitude from Miller and the Broncos.

This defense is collectively the best in pro football because it consistently displays assignment discipline. And when the time comes to bulldoze an offensive line, the quarterback is a sitting duck.

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