Late in the first padded practice of the year for the Broncos, Von Miller lined up on the defensive left edge, outside rookie tight end Noah Fant. Miller, suddenly 30, has always had a get-off stance similar to Lawrence Taylor’s, one foot back, leaning forward, threatening the inside but usually going outside, so you have to respect both. At the snap, he beat Fant outside and charged at rookie quarterback Drew Lock; it would have been sack in real life, but you don’t sack the quarterback in training camp. Next snap: Miller dropped three steps back into coverage, then pivoted quick and cut to his left, velcroing himself to an undrafted wideout, Romell Guerrier, in the slot. Lock, nothing there to his right, threw incomplete to the left side of the field.
The second play is more important to the 2019 Broncos, strangely enough.
The new coaching staff, led by pass-rush maestro Vic Fangio, has set out to make a very good player great at all things. Last year, Von Miller was not. He was sloppy. He got called for three encroachment penalties in the first half against the Niners late in the season and got yanked by coach Vance Joseph. PFF rated him the 16th-best edge-rusher in the game (low for him), 57th in coverage and 127th against the run. Numbers don’t lie. Miller was not a complete player last year. That was a significant factor in the Broncos sinking from third in team defense in 2017 to 22nd last year—and the dismissal of Joseph. Poll 32 offensive line coaches, and Miller might still be the most respected edge-rusher in the game. But in an era when edge-rush is all-important, it’s interesting to note that Miller, in eight seasons, has never won Defensive Player of the Year.
So why am I talking about blanket-covering Romell Guerrier in the slot? Because Fangio and his respected outside linebackers coach, Brandon Staley, are building Miller from the ground up, fundamental by fundamental. They know he can rush the passer, and know he can be better even at that. But they know he has to be better at the other aspects of the game, because he’s the defensive leader of the team, and other players follow him. If Miller’s working his footwork and his drops and coverage early in training camp, and that shows up at nighttime when practice tape gets dissected in front of the team, well, then Bradley Chubb and Derek Wolfe and all the new guys are going to see that and they’re going to work to be perfect too.
After practice, I said to Miller I thought that coverage play was a good example of the re-made Miller—and the respect he must have for Fangio early on.
“A hundred percent,” said Miller. “Just do the job you’re asked to do, coached to do, every play.”
More Miller: “I got a great coach here, one of the best coaches I’ve ever had in my life. We have great leadership here but he’s an outside linebacker guy. He’s coached a lot of great ones. I wanna be his greatest product yet. It’s the little things, like coach Fangio says. When you really focus on the little things it turns into a change of game. It turns into a whole different athlete. I bought into that. I bought into my outside linebackers coach as well, Coach Staley. He stays up super late thinking about how to make me better … I can really appreciate that. I bought into whatever those coaching points that they give me.”
Like this one on encroachment/offside. Miller has liked to take chances at the snap to get a millisecond of an edge. A myth, Fangio told his team one day. We had 60 sacks with the Panthers in 1996 and we jumped offside four times all season.
“Every player is going to have an assignment and a technique on every play,” said Staley, a rising coach under Fangio who came from Chicago with him. “If you can master those two things, then your beautiful instincts can take over. What Vic has taught Von—and with Vic, you’re talking about the Bill Walsh of outside linebackers, he’s had Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Khalil Mack—is, ‘These are parts of your game we think can get better. And it will lead to more for you.’ That’s not a knock on Von. It’s a compliment. There’s another gear he can get to. And to Von’s credit, he has had a refreshing humility about being coached.”
Said Fangio: “Von’s been excellent, receptive from the beginning.”
The Broncos, coming off the 11-21 Joseph era, have been harped on by Fangio about the little things. Denver was seventh last year in turnover margin in the NFL; excellent, really, considering the top six made the playoffs. But the offense stumbled all season, and the lack of discipline on both sides (30th in penalties) crippled consistency. You’d think a defense with the bookend rush of Miller and Bradley Chubb and a secondary led by the great Chris Harris Jr., could make up for that, but they were 22nd in explosive plays allowed. Fangio watched tape of the season and couldn’t believe all the defensive breakdowns.
Fangio, getting acclimated to Denver over the past few months, has been to a few Nuggets and Rockies games. He loves talking to other coaches. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff attended Saturday’s practice.
“The details of each sport need to be tended to,” Fangio said, asked about lessons from his baseball manager friends Bud Black and Joe Maddon, and those in other sports. “And there’s team organization, team morale, maintaining the structure of a team where the individual is promoted so much. I like watching all games. Seeing the other games just solidifies to me that fundamentals is what wins. In a basketball game, a guy doesn’t box out correctly, and the other team scores on a putback. Baseball, they miss a cutoff, a run scores, you lose by one and it’s a huge play. Fundamentals is ultimately what causes you to win and lose.
“I think the other thing, and this has really been the case with Von, is players want the truth. Joe Maddon told me: ‘If I tell the truth to a player and he doesn’t like it, he’s gonna be mad for a couple days. If I lie to the player and he figures that out, he’s going to be mad at me forever.’ And rightfully so. We’re in this business to make people better, not gloss over things.”
At practice Saturday, the Denver radio host/FOX broadcaster/former NFL guard Mark Schlereth looked out at Miller during practice on a broiler of a Colorado morning. “I’ll make this prediction: Von’s sack numbers will go down, but he’ll be a better player at everything, and he’ll open it up for other guys on the defense. Derek Wolfe could have a career year with Von and Chubb being better at the total game. Von is like the Matrix; the things he can do athletically are not of this world. But now what I think Vic has done is impress on him that there’s no more freelancing. If one guy on the defense freelances, he f—- us all. Plus, we have to get out of this business of equating sacks with total success of a pass-rusher. It’s nonsense. Von can get 12 sacks and be the best pass-rusher in the league—playing the right way, he opens it up for 10 guys to make plays, and for this to be a complete defense.”
It’s a balancing act for Miller, who told me he wants to break Bruce Smith’s all-time sack record. Interesting numbers:
Bruce Smith, after his eighth NFL season, had 92 sacks entering his age-30 season. He finished his career with 200 sacks.
Miller, after his eighth NFL season, has 98 sacks entering his age-30 season.
So Smith got 108 sacks after his 30th birthday. “That’s encouraging, definitely encouraging,” Miller told me—but he also said he, like Fangio, is not going to make proclamations. Miller has become friends with Smith, who came to Miller’s Pass Rush Summit this year and spilled everything he had for Miller.
Ask those who have played with Miller and those who coach him now, and they’ll tell you he likes to be coached, and coached hard. If Miller takes it all in, Denver will be far better on defense, and the pressure on Joe Flacco to lead an explosive offense will be lessened. Miller knows what’s on his shoulders. It’s only the pressure of the 2019 Broncos season. He’s okay with that. Just a gut feeling here: Miller’s smart; he majored in Poultry Sciences at Texas A&M and has a big chicken/turkey production facility in Texas. He had a good presence at the Kentucky Derby doing TV for NBC with Dylan Dreyer on the network’s pre-race show. He gets it, though, that he needs to keep the big thing the big thing.
“I do a lot of stuff good,” Miller told me, “but the thing I do best is play football.” Fangio’s counting on that.