Cover-Two: Does Von Miller’s suspension void Denver’s Super Bowl hopes?
With the news that Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller has been suspended for the first six games of the 2013 NFL season for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy, SI’s Chris Burke and Doug Farrar analyze what this does to Denver’s Super Bowl chances, and if the franchise needs to address some serious issues off the field.
What does the Miller suspension do to Denver’s pass rush?
Farrar: Between the Miller suspension and Elvis Dumervil’s fax-related departure to Baltimore, the Denver pass rush you saw in 2012 will be just about gone until late October, when Miller returns. Not only will the team be without the duo who combined for 29.5 sacks in the regular season, but also it will lack the twosome that provided 24 quarterback hits and 64 quarterback hurries — or 65 percent of the Broncos’ 2012 hits, and 70 percent of its hurries. Imagine removing Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware from the Dallas Cowboys’ fronts, or Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy from Carolina’s, or Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins from Cincinnati’s, and … well, you get the idea. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will make all the right noises about “next man up,” but he has to be pulling his hair out right about now.
Burke: Nothing good. It’s not just Miller and Dumervil, as mentioned above, but also Derek Wolfe possibly out of the lineup for a bit after injuring his neck last week. Denver is a less imposing defense now than it was 24 hours ago.
That, in turn, could stretch the Broncos’ secondary, which was remade a bit this offseason by the acquisition of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the potential insertion of safety Duke Ihenacho into the lineup. Denver’s shoddy pass defense undid it in the postseason. With opposing quarterbacks having more time to throw, those corners and safeties will have to hold their coverages for even longer.
Who might be able to fill in, now that Dumervil is gone altogether and Miller will be out for those six games?
Farrar: Two defenders could provide different, if comparatively limited, versions of that pass-rushing power. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard is tremendously versatile and can get quarterback pressure stunting from the inside or moving around the edge, and the Broncos may well move him around even more in that kind of role. Denver also acquired veteran pass-rusher Shaun Phillips from San Diego, and Phillips should have enough gas left in the tank to spell Miller early in the season and provide pressure on the other side when Miller is back. End Derek Wolfe, who finished third behind Miller and Dumervil with six sacks last season, is recovering from a scary spinal injury he suffered last week against the Seattle Seahawks, but he can bring additional pressure when healthy.
Burke: Phillips is going to be the key. He’s 32, but he proved with 9.5 sacks last season in San Diego that he still can get to the quarterback in the right circumstances. Let’s be honest, though: There is no replacing Miller for the Broncos. He is, without question, the best defender on the team and a player the opposition has to scheme for specifically. Even if Phillips holds his own over the season’s first six weeks, the Broncos will find it much more difficult to get to the QB.
Denver was a prohibitive favorite to win the AFC West and go deep into the playoffs with Miller playing the whole season. How much will this affect the Broncos’ chances?
Farrar: Denver should still make hay in a relatively weak AFC West, but the prognosis in the playoffs is not as favorable, unless Phillips or Woodyard (or somebody) can replace Dumervil. The Baltimore Ravens riddled Denver’s defense with the deep ball in their amazing double-overtime divisional playoff win, and you don’t throw deep as often as Joe Flacco did without time in the pocket. With that time, ineffectiveness in Denver’s secondary was exposed, and you can bet Broncos opponents will be teeing off as much as they can without Miller and Dumervil in there. Denver still has Peyton Manning and an estimable receiver crew, but this team had all of that last year, as well. Does this take it out of the running for a Super Bowl? In the more stacked NFC, it very well might … but if Manning has one of his all-time seasons, he could do what he did with the 2006 Colts — win a Super Bowl with a really bad defense.
Burke: In the AFC West this situation may not make too much of a difference — the Broncos were far and away the best team on paper pre-Miller suspension and they’re still atop that list after it. The Chiefs once again are enticing NFL playoff prognosticators, but let’s not forget that was a two-win team a year ago. Even if the Chiefs, the Chargers or the Raiders are significantly improved, nine or 10 wins might get the job done in the division.
Where this could hurt — a lot — is in the race for a playoff bye and home-field advantage. The top two seeds in the AFC postseason last year (Denver and New England) finished the regular season with 13 and 12 wins, respectively. If Denver struggles to a 3-3 or worse start sans Miller, it will be tough to reach those plateaus. The opener with Baltimore could loom large too, if both teams are in the hunt for positioning later.
Miller’s off-field incident list has been piling up, and the Broncos have had their share of issues this offseason. Is this emblematic of a larger problem within the organization?
Farrar: It’s a valid question, and one I’m sure Broncos Executive Vice President John Elway and head coach John Fox are pondering. Team executives Matt Russell and Tom Heckert were suspended recently for separate drunk driving incidents, and linebacker D.J. Williams was released in March after multiple DUI dings and suspensions in 2012 for violations of the league’s substance-abuse policy. Elway and Fox are well-respected guys around the league, and rightfully so, but it could easily be argued it’s past time for a culture change in Dove Valley.
Burke: Those issues with Russell and Heckert probably did more to sound the alarms in Denver than Miller’s stumbles. One or two players running into trouble will happen from time to time when you’re trying to keep an entire roster in check. But when those red flags raise up from the roster into the front office, there’s certainly enough evidence to dive a little deeper into how everything operates. Seattle, after multiple Adderrall-related slip-ups, probably is having similar conversations, and NFL teams in general are better off when they’re proactive in these situations.