Marquee Matchups: Opposite Ends
Von Miller, the Broncos' second-year pass-rushing phenom, is destroying once again, but what has come of his bookend mate? As Miller goes, so does the Denver pass rush.
Marquee Matchups: Opposite Ends
Last Thursday in Oakland the Denver Broncos won their eighth straight game of the season to extend their league-leading winning streak and tick off the first in a series of must win games to keep alive their hopes of a first=round bye. However, one of the take home points from the game was the hidden fragility within an area of perceived strength in their defense.
While on one side of their defense a second-year phenom was racking up more pressure to further pad his résumé as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, opposite him a veteran continued a barren stretch as he was completely and conclusively shutdown by one of the NFL’s emerging left tackles. The combination of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil was supposed to be the sort of two-pronged attack that would make Peyton Manning feel like he was back in Indianapolis, but since some early-season promise Dumervil has fallen away — and the weight of the pass rush is landing almost entirely on the shoulders of the Broncos’ young star.
A one-pace pass rushing attack, as exceptional as Miller might be, is a fragile prospect for a team heading into the playoffs. This week in Marquee Matchups we examine the job Jared Veldheer did on Elvis Dumervil last week and what his downturn in form might mean for the Broncos moving forward.
Following the Form Guide
Entering last Thursday’s game, Dumervil and Veldheer were headed in opposite directions. While Dumervil had impressed with some strong early-season displays, his exceptional game against Oakland in Week 4 signaled a reversal in fortune for both him and the Raiders’ left tackle. As one of last season’s breakout stars, Veldheer entered the season as an under-the-radar pick to be an All-Pro but, though his early season displays were far from poor, a couple of barren games in Weeks 6 and 7 left him lagging behind the top left tackles in the NFL. Meanwhile Dumervil, who was exceptional during Denver’s inconsistent start to the season, tailed off massively after recording nine pressures (two sacks, two hits, and five hurries) against the Raiders in the first meeting.
Since that game the pass rushing and protection grades for these two have been in stark contrast. In those eight games, Dumervil has recorded five sacks, four hits, and 13 hurries and earned a pass rushing grade of -1.8. If it weren’t for two games against the hopelessly outmatched Michael Harris of the San Diego Chargers, those numbers would be even worse; a pair of sacks, four hits, eight hurries, and a -8.8 pass rush grade for an eight-game stretch from a supposedly top-tier pass rusher simply isn’t good enough.
In that same time, Veldheer yielded just 16 total pressures in seven starts before a poor display at home against Cleveland (a sack and six hurries) blotted his copybook. In that stretch of games Veldheer had arguably been the top tackle in the entire league, grading well not only as a pass protector but also as a run blocker. This is exactly the kind of production that had people raving about his All-Pro potential. On the balance of form it was going to take an exceptional slump-busting performance from Dumervil to get the better of Veldheer.
Miller Carries the Load
The form guide entering the game played out exactly as expected — Dumervil was stonewalled and shutout by Veldheer, who not only shut him down as a pass rusher but also got the best of run-blocking situations as well. On top of coming up empty on 30 pass rushes, Dumervil also failed to get on the stat sheet with a tackle for the first time this season… never even getting into position to miss a tackle. This was as thoroughly as a player can be shut down, he was blanked from the score sheet entirely.
From early in the game Veldheer was neutralizing Dumervil as a pass rusher, able to slide out quickly to cut off his outside rush and seal the pocket on a deep shot by Carson Palmer to Rod Streater. Even when Dumervil looked like he could slide off Veldheer’s blocks and into Palmer at the top of his drop, Veldheer was able to go with him and drive him past the quarterback, never letting him fully disengage and cause any concern to his quarterback.
Speed has long been Dumervil’s greatest weapon as a pass rusher and an outside rush from a wide alignment was the closest that Dumervil got to troubling Veldheer in this entire game, his pass rush only coming up short due to a quick pass to a wide open Brandon Myers late in the second quarter. As dangerous as that speed can be, when it’s coming from a one-trick pony production can slip massively.
This season Dumervil has lost some of his variety as a pass rusher, seeing the amount of pressure he records via bullrush drop markedly. Last year 34% of Dumervil’s pressure came via bullrush and, barring a powerful last three weeks of 2012, he won’t approach that number this time around. Added to that is the fact his proportion of pressure working to the inside of opposing pass protectors is as sparse (18%) as ever. Having no variety to threaten athletic tackles like Veldheer — setting up whatever outside speed you have — is a recipe for disaster.
By comparison, the player down the line from him, Miller, records almost exactly as much pressure inside (27 pressures) as he does to the outside (31). On top of having an almost unblockable ability to dip and turn the corner, Miller has a devastating inside move which sets up that outside rush and allows him to make the big plays off of the edge — seven of his sacks have come to the outside of a blocker compared to three to the inside. He is at the height of his powers but the versatility in his pass rushing makes him difficult to deal with, while Dumervil is becoming more predictable in his pass rushing attack.
This is a shared problem across the rest of the Denver defensive line, every other defensive lineman grades negatively for the Broncos as a pass rusher and they were all shutout against the Raiders, with the other pressure coming from linebackers and defensive backs. However, the downturn in form from Dumervil has brought into sharp focus the fragility of the Broncos’ pass rush if anyone is ever able to get to grips with the second-year standout.
Miller has only had one (by his own exalted standards) ‘down’ game this season: in Kansas City, where he still recorded three pressures (a sack and two hurries) on 19 pass rushes. What happens, though, if a team decides to really go after Miller to try and kneecap the Denver pass rush?
Overt and blatant double team is something that is often mentioned with regards top-drawer pass rushers, but is something that rarely happens for an extended period of time in a game. But if any one player is a candidate for that this late in the season, surely it’s Miller. Few pass rushes are as dependent upon one rusher as the Broncos are on Miller. So the question has to be asked: rather than leaving right tackles — not usually famed for being fleet of foot — singled up with him, will teams start to go after Miller consistently with two pass protectors?
As the rest of the Denver pass rush continues to show a lack of ability to consistently make one-on-one matchups count, you have to question what opposing offenses would be losing. With games coming up against the likes of Baltimore, Cleveland, and Kansas City, the latter two in particular have little to lose in terms of giving away a game plan for a potential playoff encounter.
Realistically, what does an offense have to lose by at least trying to double Miller to keep him quiet? Well, I can see two concerns. One being opening up more opportunities for other linemen to get extensive one-on-one pass rushing opportunities. More dangerously, though, the Broncos could look to drop Miller off into coverage away from double teams and blitz from the opposite side, overloading the rest of the offensive line.
Either scenario is a risk worth taking for Denver’s opponents. What they would be asking is to make another pass rusher beat them, or for the Broncos to try something different to get pressure. The latter in particular gets Miller out of the pass rush, which could open up other areas in a Denver coverage unit that has been one of the better in the league this season.
At present, teams are just asking Miller to beat their pass protection and he is proving endlessly that he is able to do that to any tackle in the league. If the Broncos’ pass rush continues to be disproportionately weighted towards Miller, don’t be surprised to see a team really go after him and dare the rest of the Broncos’ rush to challenge the quarterback.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.