Without Miller, Broncos need next men up

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
4:25
PM ET

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It has often been said after a comma in conversation, a piece of the yeah-but response about the Denver Broncos' defense.

The Broncos, despite some rather alarming numbers like 25.7 points allowed per game, have stood by that their defense is coming around. That it had some high-quality moments and it just needed smaller gaps between those moments, needed more consistency to get things right as week after week went by with only marginal change.

That when Champ Bailey recovered from a foot injury he suffered in training camp, that when Von Miller rounded into form, then things would look up and those two-alarm numbers would begin to go down.

Even immediately following the Broncos' 37-13 victory over the Houston Texans Sunday, a game where they surrendered a season-low 13 points on a season-low 240 yards, the Broncos were holding firm to that belief even though Miller had left the game midway through the first quarter with a knee injury.

"With the people we have in here, the people we have in our meeting rooms, we know we have it in us," safety Mike Adams said after the win. "It's all about making strides -- I keep saying that because I think it’s true. Things didn’t always go the way we wanted in some games, but we have to keep making strides, keep being a little better each week and we can get there."

Now, however, time's up. The buzzer has gone off and the Broncos need to buckle up and get to it because Monday morning brought another hill to climb with an MRI that confirmed a torn ACL in Miller's right knee. He won’t be rounding into form because his season is over and his place in the defense is on hold until he goes through surgery and rehab over the next six to nine months.

"It's a blow," Broncos coach John Fox said Monday. "Much like losing a guy like [left tackle] Ryan Clady earlier in the season ... but our guys will deal with it ... we'll sort it out, figure out what we need to do ... We’ll take a couple of minutes to move on and sort that out as we go."

It ties a rather unsightly bow on what has been a difficult football year for Miller. He was suspended for six games to open the season because he violated the league's substance-abuse policy, he had some off-the-field issues that included multiple traffic violations, as well as being arrested at a local gun shop when a background check revealed a missed court appearance. His play on the field since his return? It had been everything the Broncos had been waiting for at times and fairly nondescript at others.

But the Broncos, with Miller's three sacks in a four-game span before the trip to Houston, believed the corner was about to be turned. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio kept hope alive, often saying Miller's "best football is ahead of him."

Now a defense with Bailey still working his way back, having played in just his fourth game of the season Sunday, with defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson on injured reserve with a hip injury and safety Rahim Moore still on injured reserve designated to return with a lower leg injury, will be without Miller as well.

"We've had some adversity on defense, no doubt, and now we can’t just expect to lean on Von to make the greatest play at the best time," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "It’s going to take everybody doing their jobs the best they can. Not doing too much, but doing their jobs the best way they know how."

What does it mean? It means Shaun Phillips, who leads the Broncos in sacks with 10, has to find the sweet spot again. Phillips has one sack in his past five games and will get most of the snaps from the rush end spot with Miller out of the lineup.

It means Robert Ayers, who had 4.5 sacks in the Broncos' first five games and has had just one sack -- Sunday against the Texans -- in the past nine games, has to be the guy the Broncos have hoped he would be since he was the 18th pick of the 2009 draft.

There was the belief Ayers had found a groove of sorts in the early going when Miller was out because of the suspension. But since a shoulder injury made him a game-day inactive Oct. 13 against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ayers did not have a sack in limited playing time until Sunday, when Miller was out of the lineup again.

Ayers played 47 snaps Sunday against the Texans, his highest total since he played 59 snaps against the Giants in Week 2. The Broncos need Ayers to rise with the tide of the postseason.

The Broncos need Malik Jackson, already in the midst of his best work as a pro, to find a little more. They need Derek Wolfe to come back for the postseason to contribute in some way. They need Nate Irving, who replaced Miller in Sunday's win, to be the kind of starter the Broncos thought he would be when they picked him in the 2011 draft.

In short, with the trophy games on the near horizon, they need everybody, from Bailey to Ayers to Wolfe to Phillips to Terrance Knighton to Wesley Woodyard to Danny Trevathan to anyone and everyone who has a seat in the defensive meeting room to find a little more.

Or, with the way this season has gone for the defense, exactly what they would have had to do even if Miller didn't hurt his knee.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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