Von Miller and the shooting linebacker, Part 2

This is the second of a multi-part series on Broncos star linebacker Von Miller; Part 1 originally appeared on January 5

If you ask why a player who’s only 6’2 and 210 lb could be playing in the middle/nose guard slot under Paul Brown, it had to do with three things. It was a long time ago, so size and heft weren’t quite the same factors they are now. Because of that, speed at the snap is the number one skill needed for a pass rusher. The sudden blast from a neutral start to full speed in a moment’s time - and it’s something that Von Miller has in spades, just as Bill Willis did under Paul Brown - is the single most important quality for that role. Miller had 7.5 of his sacks in 2.5 seconds or less - they’re starting to gauge ‘quick sacks’ by that measure, and while OL mistakes can play into it, the most important thing it gauges over a season is how fast the player can explode off the LOS. Miller nudges the land-speed record there.  In a couple of seasons, he may be pushing to break it.

Leverage is second, another absolute key to the job as a pass rusher. Just ask Elvis Dumervil - or an offensive lineman. Actually, Zane Beadles already weighed in on this. He’s been on the receiving end of this one enough times:

In the simplest terms, the lower man wins. "If a player like Von is able to get down and he's flexible — and it's the same with Elvis — he gets underneath guys and is able to separate with his arms. That's difficult for an offensive lineman. You're not going to win many of those no matter the weight difference."

The absurdity of the pundits that are still claiming that Miller is ‘overcoming’ his drafting by a 4-3 team has left me unable to know whether to belly laugh or weep in sadness when professional writers put out that dreck - laughing generally wins, since it’s so sheerly moronic when you actually look at the somatypes in the Phillips 3-4, Bullough 3-4, 46 defense, and Tampa 4-3. Denver’s hybrid in theory calls for the body type that Von has - period. Even if it didn’t, he’s so talented that it really wouldn’t matter; the reality is that his somatype is absolutely normal for a 4-3 LB and his skills at leverage are equaled only by perhaps Elvis Dumervil. If you look at other 4-3 and 4-3 hybrid teams, Miller’s height and weight are perfectly normal. His skills are far beyond normal, but that’s why they drafted him. He could play in any system and excel.

Miller’s style is quite different at times - his ability to blast from stopped to speeding, his ability to maintain that speed while he can get so low on the corner that at times it looked like his body was nearly parallel to the ground was brutal to stop. His use of the swim move on tackles, guards, TEs and centers is matched only by the disdain with which he uses the third key aspect of pass rushing - hand use - on a tight end or running back as he flies past on his way to the QB. Hand placement is one of the constant (and often ignored) keys to success in the trenches on both the offensive and defensive sides. Miller’s is incredibly good for a player so young. Even more frightening is that he’s stopping the run and has even shown quick improvement as a coverage player. Without the cast, he’s rookie of the year, and might still be. Defensive ROY should be his in a walk. He’s quickly becoming a Michael Jordan type of player - one that doesn’t really have a weakness. He’s very young, as Jordan was when I first started watching him. But that unique level of talent, that gear that other athletes just don’t have is there, and barring major injury, there’s not much that opponents can do to stop him over a full game.

Elvis Dumervil put it this way: "The 'get off,' leverage and hands, you put those three together you're going to win the rush."

Let me show you how Von Miller uses those three attributes to such effectiveness.

This might also suggest to you that Miller’s supposed ‘regression’ after his thumb was broken is in great part due to his inability to use his hand, whether in gaining containment or in attacking the QB. When he uses the hand to tackle, there’s a lot of pain. When he uses it to create separation from the linemen, it’s also painful. His skills haven’t diminished - his ability to use them is greatly impaired. We’ll see a more experienced and hopefully healthier Miller again next season.

By the way, it was against the Raiders that Miller had equal success running his linebacker routes straight up the middle (against center Stefan Wisniewski, who has drawn a lot of positive attention this year), just like his ancestral player, Sam Huff did. Denver DC Dennis Allen generally runs Miller off the edge, so that’s what we’ll be breaking down.

So, the factors we’re interested in are speed off the snap, leverage and hand use. Let’s see how he uses them:

Understanding Miller’s Attack

At KC, Week 10 - 12:57 1st Q, KC is 1st and 25 on their own 17:

Broncos are in their base D, with nickelback Chris Harris (#25) at left on Jonathan Baldwin (#89), who goes in motion to the offensive right. Harris mirrors him, showing man coverage. Baldwin stops almost directly behind the RTE but slightly inside of him, so that both are in line between Miller, who has his hand up in attack mode, while the other three Broncos linemen (Brodrick Bunkley, Ryan McBean and Elvis Dumervil) have theirs down. The QB, Matt Cassel (#7), is the in gun, with his running back just to his left. Baldwin has finished motioning from left to right, ending just behind and a hair inside TE Leonard Pope (#45). That’s really the only part that matters here - who tries to stop Miller. The play begins.

At the snap, the X receiver (Dwayne Bowe) releases and the tailback follows him around to the left to provide an outlet option. Tackle Barry Richardson and guard John Asamoah are double-teaming Marcus Thomas, while center Casey Wiegmann takes on NT Ryan McBean.  Pope on the line and Baldwin behind and just inside of him are responsible for Miller. It’s a two on one against Von - in theory, good odds for the offense, even if it’s just a big receiver and a TE. But, that doesn’t take Miller’s abilities into account. Both offensive tackles are standing in pass blocking position, while the center and guards have their hand on the ground.

Marcus Thomas draws a lot of double teams due to his combination of brute power and hand placement - he’s not considered the nose tackle in this system, but he’s got a lot of the tools and can play that role - Denver is very likely to bring him back, and I can’t think of a reason not to offer him multiple years. On KC’s side, there’s also the running back who could block if the rush is too strong, but instead they’re sending him out to the offensive left as an outlet receiver. This formation means that three of the Broncos rushers are double teamed, including Miller. That should be enough - but it’s not.

At the snap, Miller breaks slightly inward, to punch the inside shoulder of the tight end. Pope will move to block him, but he’s already too late - he’s already out of the play, he just doesn’t know it yet. Miller will shed him like a used jersey, springing inside with his left hand punching on Pope’s inside shoulder to keep him off and disrupt his movement. Miller crosses Pope’s face as he moves past him on the inside.

Baldwin tries moving further inside to obstruct the lane - and as he does, it’s already too late for him, too. Miller is already past him, and he also receives a punch with Miller’s left hand as Von goes by the inside shoulder of Baldwin, just to keep him off of Miller and off-balance - in doing so, Von is demonstrating speed, leverage, and hand use in right about half a second’s time.

In fact, Miller is moving so fast that he’s gone slightly past Cassel -  so he puts out his right hand and shoves off of Wiegmann with his right hand, in order to better change his direction back to the inside and he cuts back into the middle, where the unsuspecting Cassel is looking for his downfield man.

Miller moved so quickly that he’s actually used other offensive players as pylons to help change his direction - and they can’t do a thing about it, because of his speed, leverage and hand use. Cassel notices Miller and tries to flee, but to no avail. Miller wraps his leg up perfectly and Cassel goes down. Miller laid out in the air, wrapped up Cassel’s lower leg from behind and to the right and scores the first sack of the day.

Other Options

There are a few other plays that I’m going to look at as examples of other ways to use Miller. For one thing, he and Doom share a talent for leverage, and Miller’s abuse of Chargers right tackle Jeromey Clary during their last encounter (Week 12, Nov 27: a 16-13 Broncos road win) was a thing of beauty - he just fired off low, stayed beneath Clary’s center of gravity, and drove him backward like a big wheelbarrow. A similar experience awaited Jets right tackle Wayne Hunter during the Jets' final drive of the Broncos' 17-13 victory. At 318, he’s got 75 pounds on Miller, but Hunter isn’t exactly an elite tackle. Miller didn’t even slow - he just fired straight ahead, rammed into Hunter, knocked him flat to the turf and scored a sack on Sanchez.

In addition to his work off the edges, Miller is also being used as an up-the-middle rusher with predictably effective results. Much like Bill Willis before him, Miller’s first step off the line is so fast that he’s already beaten most of the players who go against him - he hasn’t finished his play yet, but they’re already toast. He was particularly effective with that against Oakland in their second game against Denver (Week 9, Nov 6). When you add to that the leverage that he uses, his ability to cut with his body nearly parallel to the ground and the beauty of his hand placement, not to mention the arsenal of moves, techniques and attacks that you usually see in a far more experienced player, and you begin to get a sense of what he brings to this defense. I know it sounds gushy, but you can ask any writer who really watches film. Pro Football Focus makes this description sound iffy - Miller has those guys astounded. They’ve even talked about him seriously as Defensive Player of the Year, even though that wasn’t going to happen.

The hiring of John Fox and Dennis Allen's is certainly one reason that the D has improved. Players like Chris Harris and Quinton Carter have stepped up. Brodrick Bunkley was a find, Marcus Thomas has been everything that many of us promised in the offseason, and Ryan McBean has found a surprising home at rotational NT, so I’d be happy to see all three DTs returning. Robert Ayers has played multiple positions and done well at each. The defensive front has been stout - and it has started with Miller/Doom. Defend one horn of the bull and the other gores you. Double team Miller and he leaves both blockers grasping air. Speed off the snap, leverage and hand use. It’s the trinity of pass rushing.

It’s a pleasure to get the chance to watch Von Miller play for Denver.  Go Broncos!

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

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