In the coming weeks, PFF’s Lead Analyst, Ben Stockwell, will bring you in-depth analysis of the game’s top pass rushers and pass protectors, breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of their play and highlighting what sets them apart. The series continues with this look at Denver’s Von Miller.
Few players have had the kind of impact entering the league in recent times as Von Miller has had in his first two seasons with the Denver Broncos. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of pass rushers enter the league and play well immediately, but Miller has been an excellent three-down player for the Broncos in both of his seasons and somehow managed to take a giant step forward this year on what was already a stunning rookie season in 2011.
Miller is one of the first of a new breed of linebackers who is helping teams to re-think how they deploy their LBs in a three-down capacity. No longer does a linebacker need to be able to play well in coverage to stay on the field for three downs, with ever more impressive athletes emerging from college they can instead put their hands down in the dirt and rush the passer on third down, offering even greater flexibility to their defense. Miller is not the first, Julian Peterson for one played in a similar role at times in the previous decade and Kamerion Wimbley was doing the same for the Raiders a year before Miller entered the league. However, none have executed this role as well as Miller has in just two years in the league. Simply as a pass rusher Miller was right up there with the likes of J.J. Watt and Cameron Wake in re-defining what we have come to expect is possible for a pass rusher.
Inside Pass Rush: 33 total pressures, pressure every 13.9 pass rushes
Miller’s big area of improvement in his second season was getting pressure to the outside of opposing pass protectors. As a rookie he recorded pressure in this manner only once every 21.5 pass rushes, which placed him outside of the league’s Top 50 pass rushers with a minimum of 100 pass rushes, around the likes of Anthony Spencer, Justin Tuck and Kyle Vanden Bosch. This year, however, Miller collected as many hurries (21) to the outside of a pass protector as he did hurries, hits and sack combined in 2011. He collected pressure to the outside of an opposing pass rusher once every 13.5 pass rushes, which was fifth in the league behind the likes of Brandon Graham, Cameron Wake and Robert Mathis. With his inside and outside pressure rates matched so closely he was one of the league’s most balanced pass rushers in 2012.
However, the one area that Miller is by far and away better than any edge rusher in the league is at beating blockers to their inside, taking the shortest route to the quarterback. No-one got as much total pressure to the inside as Miller (33; 3 Sk, 6 Ht, 24 Hu) and no-one was remotely close to him in terms of the rate at which he got pressure inside of pass protectors in 2012. The only other edge rusher to get pressure inside better than once every 20 pass rushes this season was Julius Peppers (19.5), and Miller was the only player to maintain his 2011 form in this regard. Only a year ago Miller was one of 13 players to get inside pressure better than once every 20 pass rushes. While the likes of Aldon Smith (11.4 to 23.3), Chris Long (15.1 to 30.2) and John Abraham (17.8 to 26.1) saw significant drop offs in their inside pressure rate, Miller not only maintained his but used that threat to become one of the league’s elite pass rushers at getting pressure to the outside of an opposing tackle.
When you see numbers like this, and that Miller got almost identical amounts and rates of pressure to the inside and outside of pass protectors in 2012, it is small wonder that he looked so unblockable for most of the 2012 season.
The only category that Miller didn’t rank among the league’s Top 20 in terms of pressure rate this season was at getting unblocked pressure, and when you’re talking about Von Miller that’s hardly a surprise
Across his two seasons in the NFL Miller has recorded only 12 unblocked pressures, which is fewer than Aldon Smith (14) and Calvin Pace (13) recorded this season alone. When you dig further into Miller’s unblocked stats you find that he even makes the most of these rare occasions that he can get at the opposing pass rusher without anyone picking him up. Of those 12 unblocked pressures he has recorded, he failed to turn only one of those into a sack or hit of the opposing quarterback, further illustrating why you just can’t leave Miller unaccounted for in your blocking scheme. In his rookie season Miller converted his six unblocked pressures into five hits and one hurry, while this season he converted six into three hits and three sacks. Miller doesn’t get much of his pass rush for “free” but when he does, he makes you pay in full for not picking him up.
Jeromey Clary: Seven total pressures
Many pass rushers will have one player that they pick on more than anyone else. They get pressure at a consistent rate through the season, but there is one player they pick on relentlessly. Miller, it would seem, either doesn’t go in for such favoritism or his opponents simply can’t devote one player to blocking him because of where he lines up and how aggressively he stunts when he drives inside. Of Miller’s 92 total pressures this season 80 were charged to offensive players, but those were charged to 47 different offensive players and only Clary was charged for more than five total pressures this season.
Against Clary this season Miller registered three sacks and four hurries, principally working outside rather than beating Clary with his devastating inside move. Miller, however, wasn’t merely picking on subpar tackles like Clary for the bulk of his pressure — you’d be fortunate to face enough poor tackles in a season to rack up nearly 100 total pressures. In single games against the likes of Zach Strief (1 Ht, 3 Hu), Tyson Clabo (1 Sk, 2 Hu), Sebastian Vollmer (1 Sk, 2 Hu) and Andre Smith (1 Sk, 2 Hu) Miller proved he can just as easily give some of the league’s best right tackles a tough outing.
Eric Winston: One hurry (Week 12 and Week 17)
That Winston still cannot find a home is one of the more mystifying facts of the 2013 NFL offseason. Winston was a wise pick up by the Chiefs last season after his salary got in the way of him staying in Houston, but after being released in early March Winston has been somehow unable to find a contract in the NFL, even though he has consistently been one of the league’s better right tackles over the past five years (+12.0 or better every year since 2008). Miller may have recorded two sacks in his two games against the Chiefs this season, but his -0.3 (Week 12) and 0.0 (Week 17) pass rush grades were his worst of the season. Winston was the chief reason for that (along with the Chiefs’ run-heavy play calling in Week 17) and it will be fascinating to see how (if he ends up at right tackle this season) No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher copes with Miller.
The biggest problem for Miller, and the likes of J.J. Watt and Cameron Wake who had such exemplary 2012 seasons, is how high they have set the bar for their coming campaigns. Simply put, is it possible to repeat what was before this season thought barely possible, particularly for Watt and Miller doing it in only their second NFL seasons. What Miller achieved this year was simply astonishing — to be that prolific, show such improvement in one facet of his skills as a pass rusher, and be so close to perfectly balanced as a pass rusher. Miller got pressure inside of opposing pass protectors as often as anyone, and got pressure outside of pass protectors as often as anyone. Combine that with an ability to just drive straight through a pass rusher on a bullrush (1 Sk, 1 Ht, 6 Hu) when needed, and the energy and awareness to clean up plays when the pocket breaks (12 pressures including four sacks in clean up and pursuit) and you have nothing short of the ideal pass rusher. I’m not sure how you improve on what Miller did this season, and his biggest challenge is doing it with even more expected from him, and without Elvis Dumervil on the other side. The fascinating battle will be whether his opponents can focus one (or two) men in on him, or whether the role in which the Broncos deploy him will allow him to continue to cause mayhem against a plethora of blockers.
Previous Pass Rusher Profiles: Cameron Wake
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