The pitfalls of double-teaming Von Miller

With Elvis Dumervil having moved on to Baltimore, I’ve noticed many suggestions that teams will be able to double-team Von Miller more often, and with effective results. They seem to quantify ‘more effective’ simply as a matter of reducing his sack total.

That some teams will try to do so is a fair bet. That it will bear fruit, to me, isn’t as cut and dried.

I’d like to examine the idea as a matter of logistics, more than as a Broncos fan. I have an admitted tendency to view Denver players and schemes through the filter of being a fan - I just don’t think that it’s important in considering this theory.

There are a few basic assumptions that play into the validity or inaccuracy of the idea. Let’s run through them:

  1. Miller will be double-teamed more often in 2013
  2. That will work in reducing his number of sacks
  3. Double-teaming Miller, despite its inherent dangers, is worth it because it will reduce the effectiveness of the best player in the Broncos' front seven

The first of these three assumptions is very likely - I’m sure that we’ll see teams trying to slow Miller this way. Whether it will continue depends on two things - first, that other teams will take the risk of one-on-one blocking on the rest of the players that Denver uses in their front seven, and secondly, whether using that tactic stays effective over time.

I think the approach will work on some plays, but Jack Del Rio will also use it as an opportunity. When a double-team occurs on Miller, JDR can choose from several options to make opponents pay for it. These are among them:

  1. He can focus more on bringing players like Derek Wolfe, Wesley Woodyard, Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers, Quanterus Smith, Jeremy Beal, and/or Danny Trevathan off the edge. Denver has a lot of good options right there.
  2. Double-teaming Miller also means accepting that Del Rio can get his defensive backs more involved in blitzing - you only have so many blockers. The Denver secondary had 4.5 sacks last year (Chris Harris had 2.5) and could easily get more in 2013. For example, David Bruton, given his size, speed, and the skill in open field tackling that he’s shown on STs,  could be used more in that respect. I’d expect that effective pass rushing from him is mostly a matter of emphasizing the techniques over time. Harris, Rahim Moore, Kayvon Webster, Quanterus Smith, Shaun Phillips and Danny Trevathan are all options with pass rushing abilities.
  3. Double-teaming Miller means resigning yourself to the potential for overload blitzes on the opposite side. Miller is Denver’s single best option for garnering pressures, but when the defense knows that he’s going to be double-teamed they can use backside pursuit against a run or an overload blitz against a pass to counter it.
  4. You’re going to see Miller dropping into coverage at times, leaving the double team either blocking air or trying to lead on a running play. If it’s a run, Miller and the safeties can quickly come back downhill to slow it, and the speed of Denver's defensive linemen makes backside pursuit a bigger problem for opposing offenses. These guys aren’t just big - they’re also nimble. Miller is also a bit bigger now and likes the additional muscle weight when stopping the run.
  5. When Von does rush against the double-team, my belief is still that he’s going to beat them with some regularity. That’s based on the propensities I saw from him on film last season, including against Leonard Pope and Heath Miller during the 2012 season opener versus Pittsburgh.
  6. The middle of the defensive line should have the services of some or all of these players - Derek Wolfe, Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams, Terrance Knighton, Kevin Vickerson, and Mitch Unrein. It’s not common, in my experience, to see that many D-line players who can get pressure together at one time. The NY Giants won two Super Bowls in recent years with that kind of DL performance as a major aspect of their success.
  7. No matter where you place the double-team, Miller can always move around the line in the moments just prior to the snap, reprising his ‘Joker’ role from Texas A&M. He’s done some of that in Denver already.
  8. To make players like Von even harder to defend, whole defenses have been milling around until the last second before the snap. It’s a tactic that can create or move pressure to and from anywhere at will, and Denver’s number of pass rushers provides an additional advantage there. I see it as a form of organized chaos that has been useful in seeking to minimize the advantage owned by the cerebral, defense-reading QBs such as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning.

Miller, able to move around at will, is a walking mismatch, and that permits Del Rio to expand the ways in which he attacks with him. JDR himself is one of the wild cards in this exercise - he’s highly creative, very aggressive in maximizing pressure on the quarterback, and is getting the kind of players that let him scheme to his greatest effect. No one who pushes for the ‘double-team Miller’ idea seems to mention him.

During the play I wrote about from the Week 6 comeback victory at San Diego, Danny Trevathan would have had a sack rather than a solo tackle had the Chargers tried to throw on 2nd and 11 - he was in the backfield nearly as quickly as the snap. Miller was used to clear out the fullback and confuse the pulling guard.

That’s another example of a use for him that makes a double-team on him moot - switching his responsibilities and forcing the offense to chase him. Since Miller was going to be blocked by both Le'Ron McClain, the fullback, as well as (potentially) the pulling left guard, this is an example of another way to turn the theory on its head - Miller can choose the ‘choke point’ by moving inside toward the center or outside toward the sideline, and the LBs in nickel can attack off his hip.

Trevathan or Woodyard can also be used with Miller on stunts and twists, changing where the double-team is needed.

Conclusion

JDR’s creativity in terms of getting pressure was obvious last year. This year, he has some even better players for that area of emphasis, with the sole exception being the loss of Dumervil. These also aren’t issues that I’ve seen explored with the ‘double-team Miller’ advocates.

Double-teaming Miller could just as easily result in a net gain in sacks and/or pressures as it could a loss. There are unproven assumptions that would have to be made to predict either outcome. What’s more important is that an offense has to expose itself in other ways when choosing to double-team the Sam or ‘rush’ linebacker, whether the LB comes from the edge or up the middle, along with Sly Williams, Kevin Vickerson, and so forth. Each option carries problems all its own for the offense.

Mitch Unrein was often sent in as a nickel DT last season, especially after halftime, and he did a good job of collapsing the pocket. Derek Wolfe was third on the team in sacks, and he’ll be going into this year more knowledgeable about what he has to do, and a year stronger. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that he’ll notch more sacks in 2013 than he did in 2012.

It’s not that I don’t think the team could end up missing Dumervil. Doom was and is a force in pass rushing, and I was disappointed the Broncos lost him. Assuming that Miller will be double-teamed more often and that it will be effective, though, remains a complex can of worms.

Taking that idea a step further and assuming that JDR and the Broncos won’t be able to adapt, using that option to their own advantage?

That’s taking a lot on faith.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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