With five minutes to go in the opening quarter of Denver's season-opening win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Von Miller demonstrated that he's well on his way to reaching his goal of improving his run defense this season.
Miller increased the strength of his upper body this year, and it showed during the preseason. Against one of the better rushing teams in the AFC, it was made clear again.
Pittsburgh was in 12 personnel, with the two tight ends forming the closed side on the quarterback’s left: Heath Miller (83) is on the outside, a step back, and Leonard Pope (45) is inline, just inside of him. The Broncos have four down linemen, and Von Miller has moved to the closed side, across from his namesake Heath. Antonio Brown motions from the closed side to a stacked position behind Mike Wallace (17).
As they await the snap, Leonard Pope draws a bead on Von Miller. The Steelers are going to run a stretch play to Von Miller’s side, and they have to take him out for it to succeed.
Pope has beautiful form on his block - his helmet is to the side and his pads are under Von’s. His knees are bent and he’s driving up and backwards - with Heath Miller ready to help out. It should take Von cleanly out of the play.
There’s just one small problem - Von isn’t having any of it. He’s used his hands, angled his body, slipped the block, and performed an Olé! that any matador would be proud of. Heath Miller isn’t fast enough afoot to get into Von’s path to slow him down. Pope is about to be grazing on the turf as Von angles his body, knifes through the line, and attacks, heading for Isaac Redman (33), the running back.
Redman does a nice job of stiff-arming Miller, but Von still gets his hands on the back’s ankles.
Redman breaks free, but he’s been slowed and he’s somewhat off balance. The Broncos' swarming run defense - which held a very good Pittsburgh rushing attack to 75 total yards - is there to clean up for Miller.
Von Miller is a different run defender this year. He’s running offensive tackles into the backfield, shedding tight ends and fullbacks, and making tackles that he couldn’t finish a year ago. What’s really impressive to me is that this is just the beginning - the young man remains polite and engaging off the field, but on the gridiron he’s improving before our eyes. He’s also working on his pass coverage, stating flatly that he won’t be satisfied with having a weakness in his game. It shows.
On top of that, Jack Del Rio’s coaching has the entire defense attacking, swarming to the ball, and showing the kind of consistent aggression that had been missing from the Broncos for far too long. John Fox noted after the game that they plan to rotate in Keith Brooking and rookie Danny Trevathan, who was running with the top nickel personnel group this summer. Given the outcome of their first game, the idea of seeing them get even better is something to give the most casual fan a glint in their eye. This is a defense on the way up, and Von Miller is a big part of that.
Next stop, Atlanta.