Despite standing 6'3" and weighing 237 pounds, Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller can get so low when turning the corner to rush the passer that you'd expect grass stains on the shoulders of his jersey. No big deal, right? Lots of players are flexible. But try dipping your inside shoulder nearly to the ground while continuing to move at full speed with a 315-pound offensive tackle jamming you into the turf. Fellow Denver 'backer Wesley Woodyard attempted the technique while working out with Miller. The experience remains fresh in his mind. "I heard some bones clicking and some muscles grinding," Woodyard says. "It's a God-given ability Von has."
Miller's freakishness on the football field is all the more remarkable given that in other venues he displays the coordination of a newborn colt. Last summer, in preparation for his second NFL season, Miller trained at Velocity Sports Performance in Irvine, Calif., with boyhood friend Tony Jerod-Eddie, a 49ers defensive lineman. After their workout sessions the two would wind down by shooting hoops, and an unknowing observer would have been hard-pressed to identify Miller as an athlete, let alone one of the NFL's rising stars. "He was that awful," Jerod-Eddie says. Miller's dribble? Imagine someone yo-yoing for the first time. Jump shot? "He'd get on the free throw line by himself, no distractions, and if he took 20 jumpers, he might hit one—and he's going to bank that off the backboard," says Jerod-Eddie. "He has not one basketball bone in his body."
Yet transform the ball from round to oblong, and Miller becomes Superman—fast enough to beat tackles around the edge, strong enough to knock 300-pound linemen off balance with a one-arm jab and smart enough to know he'll never fulfill his potential if he relies solely on pass-rushing talent. "I'm a true linebacker. I believe that in my heart," says Miller, 23. "I want to be a dominant run stopper. I want guys to say when they see 58, they've got to go to the other side. I'm going to be on top of the play-action stuff; I'm going to be on top of my coverages. Then when it's a definite pass situation, I switch into pass-rush mode."
Peyton Manning's arrival may be the most obvious reason why Denver is the top seed in the AFC and favored to reach Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. But just as significant has been Miller's ongoing maturation from one-trick pony to complete linebacker. After a debut season in which he had 11½ sacks and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year, Miller boosted his sack total to 18½ in 2012, third most in the league. He also forced six fumbles, tied with defensive end Elvis Dumervil for the team high, and got his first NFL interception, which he ran back for a TD. "I pulled him to the side last year and said, 'If you can play off-the-ball linebacker as well as you rush the passer, within three years you'll be the best defensive player in the league, hands-down,' " says veteran Denver linebacker D.J. Williams. "This year he applied himself to being a true linebacker. He's definitely on his way to being the hands-down guy."
That's high praise considering Miller's 2011 draft class included Texans end J.J. Watt, the front-runner to win Defensive Player of the Year, and 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, who has 33½ sacks over his first two seasons, 3½ more than Miller. But Miller, drafted ahead of both of them at No. 2, is determined to turn his promise into production. "It's not the amount of success you've had," says Miller, "it's the respect you get in the locker room as a leader, as The Guy. The organization brought me in to be that guy, and I feel like I've taken steps in that direction. But I still have a long way to go."
Even his father has noticed a difference. While others praised his son's accomplishments last season, Von Sr. shook his head. "Everything he's done to this point has been about ability," says Von Sr., who owns a battery and backup power supply company in DeSoto, Texas. "It hasn't been about, O.K., let me go out there and work my butt off and try to be the best at what I do. It's, Let me go do what I have fun doing. Now his attitude is changing. He's becoming a man, and he's fully understanding the job he's undertaken."
Before the NFL, Miller hadn't had to step outside his comfort zone since his youth days in DeSoto, when his coach, Derrick Lusk, put him at defensive end as an eight-year-old and told him to tackle the running back. Von was the most dominant player on the field, even when he made mistakes—like when he took Lusk literally and, after penetrating the backfield, stood waiting for the QB to hand off the football before tackling the running back. "I had to tell him, Whoever has the ball, that's who you tackle," Lusk says. "From that point on, that's what he did."
Von Sr. and his wife, Gloria, raised their children with a firm hand and a soft heart, instilling the values they learned growing up in East Texas—hard work, respect, accountability, honoring one's commitments. In high school Miller wanted to transfer because the coach wouldn't let him play running back or receiver. His dad's response: Finish what you start. In college Von wanted to leave Texas A&M during his freshman year, after he was suspended for the spring game for skipping classes and study halls. He loaded up his pickup and had begun the drive back to DeSoto when his cellphone rang. It was his father, who told him to turn around. Miller ended up an All-America for the Aggies and the 2010 Butkus Award winner.
Now Miller works to exceed the expectations that come with being the highest Broncos pick in a half century. As a rookie he joined a defense that had allowed the most points and yards in the league the previous season, with the fewest sacks and forced turnovers. Miller instantly upgraded the unit: This year the Broncos tied for the league lead in sacks, with 52, and were second only to the Steelers in total defense, the highest ranking ever for a Denver D.
Though Miller is on his second coordinator in two years—Jack Del Rio took over when Dennis Allen left to become the Raiders' coach—his understanding of the game and Denver's 4--3 scheme is more advanced this season. He's more attentive to his assignments, more consistent in coverage and stronger against the run. As a rookie he was hesitant at times, in part because the lockout limited his postdraft contact with coaches and the experience he needed to absorb a new role. Playing outside linebacker in a 3--4 scheme at College Station, he was taught that the ends set the edge against the run. But as a strongside 'backer in a 4--3 system, he has to play over the tight end and serve as an anchor against the run.
"Von was exciting to coach and yet sometimes frustrating because he didn't always do it exactly like you'd want it to be done," says Allen. "He was hurt by the lack of an off-season, so we tried to simplify things for him and give him an opportunity to do the thing he did well, which was rush the passer. We always tried to get Von matched up on one of the lesser players on the offensive line. Sometimes we'd put him inside on the guard, and other times we'd stand him up and let him use his athleticism. He's a fun chess piece to deal with."
On Miller's torso is a tattoo that says RELENTLESS, both a description of his playing style and an exhortation to himself to keep it up. After being named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for November on the strength of his conference-best eight sacks and 10 tackles for loss, he was summoned to linebackers coach Richard Smith's office. Smith is straight old school, the quintessential drill sergeant, so the purpose wasn't to pat his young star on the back but to show him how he could be even better. Rather than reviewing 20 plays from the previous Sunday's game on which Miller was outstanding, Smith focused on a handful of downs on which Miller did not finish strong, showing him how a little extra effort might have resulted in a big play. When they were finished, Miller turned and thanked Smith. "That's why Coach Smith and I get along the way we do," says Miller. "Even if I come off a great game, there's always something I can do better."
Says Smith, "He wants to be coached. In one year he has gained so much confidence, and he hasn't even come close to touching his full potential."
How hard is Miller willing to chase greatness? You watch as he lines up at gunner on punts during practice, trying to beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage—his way of simulating a double team in pass protection. Then you see him line up in front of the gunner on a punt return drill, trying to prevent the player from getting downfield—his way of simulating covering a tight end. Then you hear that as a rookie he had a teammate drive him to the Broncos' facility on a rare day off during training camp so he could study film. While there he called Smith at home to discuss the previous day's scrimmage. And then you recall a lesson from Miller's childhood that his father had related.
When his boys were young, Von Sr. would cut the bottom out of a cup and pour water into it. Then he'd show them that the cup was empty. Next he would pour water into a cup whose bottom had not been removed and show the boys a full cup. The message: It doesn't matter how much you put in if you don't have a foundation. For Von that means doing the extra work.
"You can see his improvement from last year," says Raiders tackle Khalif Barnes. "He tried to go low on me once or twice in his rookie year, and I was able to jam him to the ground. This year he has done a better job of timing things up. And if your hands are late, he'll just bullrush you. He's just got so many moves in his repertoire that it's tough. He's gotten smarter with his moves."
And then, always, there's his freakish flexibility. It allows a big man to get small and slip through the tiniest of crevices. His father first noticed it when Miller was five and did splits while watching an exercise program on TV. And Lusk, his youth coach, noticed it his first week of football practice.
He had told Miller to use an "L" rush: Go four yards straight upfield, then cut 90 degrees in the direction of the QB. After a few times young Von wondered why he couldn't round off his run, to get into the backfield quicker. So he burst off the line, dipped his inside shoulder low to the ground and was waiting on the quarterback before he could complete his backpedal.
"Von is as athletically gifted at rushing the passer as anybody I've seen," says Dumervil. "What he can do with his body is abnormal. He's going to be great for a long time."
On the football field, not the basketball court.
"When guys see 58, I want them to say they have to go to the other side."
Before Miller, Denver's D was 32nd in the NFL. This year it was No. 2.
Highway to Havoc
As a strongside 'backer, Von Miller does most of his damage from the left side of the defensive formation. A chart of each of Miller's 18½ sacks this season shows his varying routes to the QB
1 Week 1 Ben Roethlisberger,PIT
2 Week 1 Ben Roethlisberger,PIT
3 Week 2 Matt Ryan,ATL
4 Week 5 Tom Brady,NE
5 Week 5 Tom Brady,NE
6 Week 6 Philip Rivers,SD
7 Week 9 Andy Dalton,CIN
8 Week 9 Andy Dalton,CIN
9 Week 9 Andy Dalton,CIN
10 Week 10 Cam Newton,CAR
11 Week 11 Philip Rivers,SD
12 Week 11 Philip Rivers,SD (fumble)
13 Week 11 Philip Rivers,SD (fumble)
14 Week 12 Brady Quinn,KC
15 Week 13 Josh Freeman,TB (fumble)
16 Week 14 Carson Palmer,AK (fumble)
17 Week 16 Brandon Weeden,CLE (half sack, with Elvis Dumervil)
18 Week 16 Brandon Weeden,CLE
19 Week 17 Brady Quinn,KC
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Photograph by HECTOR ACEVEDO/ZUMAPRESS.COM
FLEX APPEAL Miller has 30 sacks in his first two seasons, including 18½ this year, but it's the improvement in his all-around game that should have opponents—that means you, Baltimore—shaking in their shoes.
RON CHENOY/US PRESSWIRE
GETTING LOW In his signature move, Miller uses his unusual flexibility to swoop down and around the tackle and on to the QB.
ILLUSTRATION BY NICOLE ZIGMONT
KARL MERTON FERRON/MCT/ABACAUSA
WATCH OUT, JOE On Saturday as in Week 15, the Ravens' QB will be in peril from Miller, who hones his rush skills by practicing on the punt team.