On Sunday, the Denver Broncos defeated the Houton Texans 37-13 and the storyline of the day was Peyton Manning breaking the single season touchdown record. But for Broncos fans, it was bittersweet, as Von Miller was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Yesterday was a surreal and bittersweet game for Broncos' Country. The Broncos took down the Houston Texans and moved on to a 12-3 record and clinched the AFC West crown for the 3rd straight season, along with a guaranteed 1st round bye in the playoffs. Sweet.
But that's not what made the day so surreal. The single season touchdown record (51) now belongs to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos franchise. Wrap your brain around that, Broncos' Country.
What an amazing feat. But that's not what the focus of this article is. Today, we focus on the bitter aspect of the equation. In the NFL, we must learn to take the bitter with the sweet, because no team is immune to adversity.
Von Miller tore his ACL and is done for the season. Deep breath. That. Just. Happened.
This time last year, Von Miller was fighting for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award and ended up losing it to J.J. Watt.
In his first 2 years in the league, Miller was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year, went to 2 Pro Bowls, and was a 2nd team All-Pro and 1st team All-Pro.
He was also a big reason that his team won the division and made it to the playoffs in 2011 and 2012.
Last year, he carved himself a piece of Broncos history as he broke Simon Fletcher's single season sack record with 18.5.
It seemed as if Miller was well on his way to laying the foundation for an Hall of Fame career.
Then he was suspended for 6 games for violating the NFL's substance abuse program. Wait, what? The 2nd overall pick in the 2011 draft, John Elway's 1st pick as V.P. of Football Operations, was going off the rails.
Once his name was in the news for the suspension, it seemed like it wouldn't go away. Missed court dates. Warrants for his arrest. Did Aldon Smith and Von Miller temporarily switch bodies like in that failed comedy "The Change Up", with Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman?
Fortunately, the Broncos were able to soldier on without Miller and subsequently won every game that he missed due to suspension.
Since his return, he hasn't quite been the same player we're used to seeing on Sundays. I won't count yesterday's game because he left it so early, but on the season, through 8 games played, he notched only 5 sacks, 34 combined tackles, and 3 forced fumbles. Extrapolate those numbers through a 16 game season and it would be a decent year. But even then, it's not the transcendent player who could take over a game that we're used to seeing.
I'm sure this year has been very stressful for Miller. I can't imagine the strain and pressure he's been under in consequence of his poor choices and actions. Those were some big distractions. And he let his team down big time.
Miller's injury yesterday occurred during a run of the mill type play for him. He didn't suffer a violent blow to the knee. He wasn't stepped on, or twisted up in a pile. Curious.
Could it be that when Broncos' strength and conditioning coach, Luke Richesson, decided it would be wise for Miller to add 16 pounds to his already muscled frame, that it ended up contributing to this unfortunate knee injury?
Yes. I believe that it did. Obviously, there's no way to know for sure, but Miller hasn't been as explosive as he's been in years past. He hasn't been anywhere near as impactful on the field. Many, including myself, have wondered if Miller's offseason weight gain has been complicit in this drop off.
Former Broncos' tight end, Nate Jackson, wrote a book called "Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile". And it's an excellent read.
Deadspin adapted and published and excerpt from the book. Very compelling.
In this piece, Jackson talks about the unintended consequence of quickly adding muscle to a body that is already under an inordinate amount of strain and abuse. When then head coach of the Broncos, Mike Shanahan, asked Jackson to switch from being a wide receiver, to a tight end, he talks about the process.
A few months into the off-season, my rehab complete, Denver's coach, Mike Shanahan, called me with a proposition: How about tight end? He thought it would be a great way for me to get more involved with the offense and catch more passes. I agreed to the science experiment and started gaining weight that day: protein shakes, extra meals, heavier lifting. The weight came quickly. I went from 215 to 240 in a few months, and by mini-camps I had taken on my new tight-end body. But my mind was still a wide receiver's. I ran like one and cut like one. I still knew how to move that way, and it gave me an advantage in the passing game. But my body didn't like it. The movements that I knew how to summon were being carried out by a body that was 25 pounds overweight. My pelvic girdle, the source of my torque and snap for every fast-twitch movement, was under a new kind of strain.
Now, Von Miller wasn't asked to play a new position, but he was asked to put on more weight. In his book, Jackson goes on to talk about the importance of not just adding weight but also strengthening the core.
Luke Richesson is one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the NFL. Of this, I have no doubt. But I can't help but connect the dots between the weight gain and his drop off in play and ultimately, his torn ACL.
But at the end of the day, it's all spilt milk. How do the Broncos move on and overcome the huge loss of Von Miller? Because make no mistake, even though his play has dropped off a bit, he is an elite player that opposing teams have to game plan for.
The way the Broncos handled the first 6 weeks of the season without him will help inform how they will overcome his absence moving forward.
That means, more snaps for Robert Ayers and Nate Irving. It means more snaps for Shaun Phillips and Malik Jackson.
And if yesterday's game vs the Texans was any indication, it means that Jack Del Rio will be much more creative in manufacturing pressure on the QB through various blitz packages. Even Champ Bailey got in on the pass rush action from the nickel position yesterday.
Miller's injury seems to have come at the most inopportune time. The Broncos have been struggling mightily on defense of late and they're one game away from the playoffs. And the coaching staff has been rotating and tinkering with the defensive starting lineup.
But it's the "next man up" philosophy. Kevin Vickerson went down and over the last 2 weeks, Sly Williams has really come on strong in his place, even notching 2 sacks in the process.
One reassuring thought is the fact that Shaun Phillips is healthy and playing well. But he'll have to step it up.
The Broncos are one win away from locking down the #1 seed in the AFC. Everything they've been working towards all season long is finally coming to fruition.
Peyton Manning will take a team a long way. But there will come a time in the playoffs where the defense will need to get a big stop, or a strip sack, or an interception.
Right now, it's hard to have faith in this defensive unit coming through in those situations, against top shelf, playoff-caliber teams. But we've trusted John Elway and company so far and this team has overcame obstacle after obstacle to get to this point. Is there any reason to stop trusting Elway now?
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