For Denver D, it's Von Miller's time
Talented young pass-rusher's performance as leader will be key for Broncos
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Of all the things that have to go right for the Denver Broncos to win the Super Bowl this season -- including Peyton Manning's continued good health, Wes Welker's contributions and the ability to avoid bone-headed mistakes in big games -- the leadership of Von Miller should rank right near the top of the list. He's been to two Pro Bowls in his first two seasons, racked up 30 sacks during that time and lived up to every expectation placed upon him. Now, he enters his third season with a defense that will be impacted by his every move. It's a responsibility he's been waiting for and one he better be ready to handle.
As much as Miller has proven on the field, he's never really had to face that burden. He spent his first season blowing people away with his talent while also being a supporting cast member in the Tim Tebow show. His development in his second season, in which he notched 18.5 sacks, wasn't nearly as sexy as the arrival of another quarterback, the iconic Manning. Miller didn't have to worry about asserting himself much in the locker room. With veterans Brian Dawkins, Elvis Dumervil and Champ Bailey on that side of the ball, all he had to do was play.
But now, Dawkins is in retirement, Dumervil is playing elsewhere and the 35-year-old Bailey is past his prime. So while the team belongs to Manning, this defense will follow Miller's lead. "I think the Broncos organization drafted me off of being a locker room guy," Miller said. "I just enjoy being in the locker room with the guys. Not necessarily just about football or plays and schemes but about just life and joking around … I think that's when my role comes in bigger than being a leader, just letting all the guys know in that locker room it's just football."
Miller already looks like he's eager to take the responsibility of being a tone-setter. Instead of maximizing his downtime before the start of training camp, he's already made plans to come in early to train with the team's strength and conditioning coaches. He's added about 13 pounds of muscle so far, bulking up to 250, and he's flirted with going as big as 260. Miller also hasn't been shy about revealing his confidence in this season's Broncos team. He proved as much earlier this offseason when he tweeted that Denver was going to win the Super Bowl next February.
Most importantly, Miller has been promoting some of the new faces in the locker room. With additions including outside linebacker Shaun Phillips, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, Denver's defense will have to build its chemistry on the fly. This is where Miller will be huge. There's no question he'll continue to make plays on the field, but the support he provides away from it will be just as valuable.
While answering questions with a reporter at the team's final minicamp, Miller even suggested that the loss of Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens, particularly after Dumervil had 20.5 sacks over the last two seasons, wouldn't be devastating. "Elvis did a lot of good things, but people don't know about [defensive end] Derek Wolfe," Miller said. "He's like [Houston Texans defensive end and reigning NFL defensive player of the year] J.J. Watt. He's a big guy who can have a big impact at the position he plays."
It's doubtful that anybody else in the NFL is going to make that comparison, but Miller's mind is in the right place. He needs a guy like Wolfe to hear such words because he needs Wolfe to be a little bit more than the player who produced a solid six sacks last season. In fact, Miller needs all his teammates to step up their game a little more. As good as this defense was in 2012 -- when it finished second in total yards allowed, third in passing and rushing yards allowed and fourth in points given up -- it wasn't nearly as sturdy when the games counted most.
Any Broncos fan will tell you that defense was the biggest reason they didn't reach the Super Bowl last season. Most of that comes down to free safety Rahim Moore inexplicably misplaying a Joe Flacco pass that turned into a 70-yard, game-tying touchdown in a playoff loss to the Ravens. But that same defense also gave up 38 points and 479 yards that evening. For all its great numbers, it looked vastly overrated in that defeat.
Miller has made it clear that he's not worrying about using that heartbreaking loss as motivation. "Last season is last season, so it's time to reload," he said. But all players make such comments at this point in the year, when they know such questions will linger until the new season kicks off. It's still hard to believe the sting of that blown opportunity hasn't made Miller see how difficult it is to win a championship.
Though he might not ever admit it, the way he's talking and acting this season is ample proof of a man who has learned a few lessons in his brief NFL career. Miller has enjoyed the glory that comes with being an instant success, and he's felt the pain associated with fractured dreams. Now, he's at a point that every big-time star in this league eventually reaches. After showing the world how gifted he is, he needs to reveal how far his talents can take both him and his teammates.