Denver Broncos: Corey Liuget

This has always been a critical year in the relationship between Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller and the Denver Broncos.

With Miller still recovering from ACL surgery and slated to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2014 season, team officials face their first major decision about Miller's contract. The team has until May 3 to exercise an option year in Miller's rookie deal that would put him under contract for 2015. With 15 days before the deadline, the Broncos had not yet reached a decision as Friday's business day drew to a close.

[+] EnlargeVon Miller
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesDenver has two weeks to decide whether it will exercise an option on Von Miller's rookie contract.
In 2011, the first year of the current collective bargaining agreement, teams were given the option of a fifth year for first-round draft picks as part of the transition to the new rookie wage scale.

The "fifth-year option" must be engaged by May 3 and the option-year salary doesn't become guaranteed until March of 2015. So, it is possible for teams to engage the option year and potentially release the player at a later date before the base salary is guaranteed.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Friday that the San Francisco 49ers did not plan to engage the fifth-year option on defensive end Aldon Smith, who was the No. 7 pick of that draft, but several players have been informed their teams would pick up the option. This includes Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (the No. 11 pick), Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (No. 5) and San Diego Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget (No. 18).

The Broncos made Miller the No. 2 pick of that draft, behind Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. With 30 sacks over his first two seasons, including 18.5 in 2012, Miller looked to be on the fast track to elite status in the league.

Miller then opened the 2013 season with a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy -- a violation that now subjects him to testing up to 10 times a month for the rest of his career. Several off-the-field issues, including an arrest last summer on a failure-to-appear warrant and several traffic violations, also dogged him last year.

He then tore his ACL against the Texans' in December and again raised some eyebrows with the team when he tried to attend a Seattle Seahawks victory party following the Broncos' 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

For the first 10 picks of the 2011 draft, the salary for the option is this year's transition tag salary in free agency at their respective positions. The figure is calculated as an average of the top 10 salaries at those spots. For Miller that would mean a $9.754 million salary if he's on the roster when the new league year begins next March.

If the Broncos decline the option and Miller returns from his injury and shows his former speed and explosiveness and more maturity off the field, the team could still use the franchise tag to keep him.

That scenario would cost slightly more since the franchise tag salary for linebackers was $11.455 million this year and could be higher next season. A franchise player's salary is guaranteed the moment the player signs the tender. Some players sign them as soon as they receive them to guarantee the money, and some wait until training camp, hoping a long-term deal is worked out instead.

The Broncos and Miller could, if both sides found some common ground, still negotiate a long-term extension.

Miller said at an appearance for his foundation Monday that he continues to work hard to return from his knee injury, and that he wants to return "a better player" than he was. The Broncos open their offseason conditioning program Monday, but Miller will not participate. He will continue with his knee rehab with the team's trainers and strength and conditioning staff.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos will spend the rest of their postseason bye week cleaning up some loose ends with some football self-examination. But they will also have to work through some what-if scenarios along the way.

Overall, the Broncos were 3-3 this season against teams in the AFC’s playoff field, with losses to the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers.

So, with that in mind, here’s a look at how they match up with each of their three possible Divisional round opponents. Next up: The Chargers.

How it happens: Chargers beat the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday.

Memory bank: It is a testament to the kind of remember-when season the Broncos have had on offense when an eight-point win over the Chargers as well a seven-point loss to San Diego five weeks later constitutes the most troublesome team for the Broncos.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/ Eric BakkeThe Chargers were one of just three teams that were able to beat the Broncos during the regular season.
But that’s exactly what the Chargers have been this season, at least compared to what the Broncos have done to most everybody else on offense. Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano did what Patriots coach Bill Belichick has done against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning through the years, choosing coverage over pressure.

The Chargers made it work by creating pressure in the middle of the field out of three- and four-man rushes. In the Chargers’ Dec. 12 win in particular, San Diego played plenty of coverages with three deep players, taking away the Broncos’ vertical routes.

The Chargers were also fairly effective, with seven- and eight-player coverage looks at keeping Manning from chipping away at them underneath. The Chargers tackled well and San Diego’s three interior linemen on defense consistently created pressure, especially defensive end Corey Liuget, to disrupt Manning's ability to get the ball out, even in situations when Manning was simply trying to get the ball to the hot receiver.

Manning's interception Dec. 12 came when his arm was hit as he was only trying to throw the ball away, but the pocket had already collapsed.

Liuget repeatedly made room between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles to get in Manning’s blind spot. Other than the Colts’ Robert Mathis and the Texans’ J.J. Watt, Liuget was the most disruptive defensive lineman against the Broncos this season.

Plan B: In the Broncos’ 27-20 loss to the Chargers Dec. 12, Denver rushed for all of 18 yards on 11 carries.

That’s negligible production with just a cursory look at the run game. Of the 11 carries, three went for negative yardage and the Broncos had just two runs of more than four yards and those went for five and six -- both by Knowshon Moreno. So, 11 carries could be a factor of cutting the losses when things weren't going well, but that's a per-carry stat line no Super Bowl hopeful can have, no matter how many times the ball gets handed to the running backs.

Like the Colts this season, the Chargers were able to do that by defending the run out of largely seven-man fronts with San Diego so intent on getting more players into coverage. Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville calls those “friendly boxes’’ to run against, and the Broncos would need to find a way to lure some of the players the Chargers put into coverage down toward the line of scrimmage and give Manning a little more work in the passing game.

It also puts play-action on the table when the run game is more than an ornamental affair, and there is no better offense at running play-action than when the Broncos decide it’s time to do just that, especially when they use play-action to get to the wide receiver screens.

Nickel for their thoughts: The Broncos defense has rushed Philip Rivers well out of the nickel package (five defensive backs) in recent meetings. But that was usually with Von Miller in the lineup.

Rivers is slightly more difficult to rush these days given former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has constructed an offense, with coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, that has Rivers using more shallow dropbacks and getting rid the ball far more quickly. But the Chargers like to open up the formation, even with bigger personnel in the game, and the Broncos will choose to answer with the nickel package plenty.

In some of those situations, particularly in the team's first meeting this season, the Chargers did try to block Shaun Phillips with a tight end at times and as a result Phillips was able to affect things, including a sack in the Broncos’ win in November. When Miller’s in the lineup and the Broncos go to the nickel, they usually stand Miller up at one defensive end spot and stand Phillips up at the other with two down linemen in between.

Without Miller the Broncos look more traditional, often with four linemen, including the defensive ends, down in three-point stances. The Broncos were in the nickel for 34 snaps, including penalty plays, in the Chargers’ Dec. 12 win and it would figure to be a well-used package again should the teams meet next week.

The Broncos are certainly better with Champ Bailey in the nickel right now and it would keep Rivers from picking away at rookie Kayvon Webster, which is what Rivers did in the San Diego win. Bailey didn't play in either San Diego game and his presence gives the Broncos more depth in secondary and his tackling ability also gives them the chance to defend the middle of the field better.

It would also allow the Broncos to have more options elsewhere in the formation if they matched Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Chargers rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen.

The issue will be in run defense in the nickel. The Chargers were effective running big on small against the Broncos' nickel package, including a 23-yard touchdown run by Ryan Mathews in the Chargers’ win.

Get off the field: The keep-away approach only works against Manning if a defense can’t get the other offense off the field. The Broncos didn’t get the Chargers off the field enough this season, especially in the Chargers' win.

In the Dec. 12 loss the Broncos’ offense lined up for a season-low 54 plays. That happened because the Chargers consistently ate clock and controlled tempo, including San Diego’s 6-of-12 showing on third down. Denver's defense and special teams were not effective flipping the field in that game as the Broncos started four possessions at their own 11-yard line or worse in the game.

And in a game when the Broncos got the ball just nine times, their average drive start was the 19-yard line.