Editor’s Note: This Q&A story ran in the Sept. 30 Gameday program, when the Broncos played the Oakland Raiders.
Unlike many young players who initially have difficulty playing against older, more experienced competition, Miller immediately showed that he belonged, recording six sacks in his first six games as a pro. Miller finished the season with 11.5 sacks despite playing the final three games with a cast on his right hand.
But Miller realized that his success rushing the passer didn’t make him a finished product.
“It was all the other stuff that was hard to grasp,” Miller said. “Concepts, fitting in the defense, knowing what I was supposed to do and how I was supposed to do it. It was just all the mental errors. I wanted to cut down on the mental errors and really just start to become the linebacker that my organization wanted me to be.”
Even after a rookie season that brought Pro Bowl and Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, Miller was far from complacent. He spent the offseason determined to get even better. Miller was a fixture at the team’s Dove Valley practice facility for the team’s voluntary workouts, minicamp practices and OTAs.
And when he wasn’t working with his coaches and teammates, he went to even greater lengths to make sure his second season would go as well as his first. Miller said he spent part of the offseason in Miami, working on yoga with defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants.
Miller’s determination to improve was not lost on defensive end
"All offseason, he's been wanting to work,” Dumervil said. “He told me he wanted to be a better all-around linebacker, and he's displaying that. He's just making all his weaknesses better. That will be scary, because he does a lot of things great, so if he can work on his weaknesses, it's going to be a problem."
Through three games this season, Miller’s hard work appears to have paid dividends, quickly erasing any possibility that his stellar rookie season was merely a flash in the pan. In the season opener against Pittsburgh, Miller dropped Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice and added two more tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He recorded his third sack of the season a week later against Atlanta.
“He's becoming more of a professional -- I can see that," Dumervil said. "He's growing as a more professional player overnight. He takes his job seriously. There's a reason why he was the No. 2 pick and the defensive rookie of the year. A guy like Von, he wants to show he's worth every penny of it. That's what he's coming out to do. He loves the game."
One man who has kept Miller motived has been Linebackers Coach Richard Smith. Miller’s relationship with Smith dates back to Miller’s days at Texas A&M, where Smith visited Miller before the 2011 NFL Draft, and the team came away impressed enough to make Miller the No. 2 overall selection. Smith said that so far this season, Miller has looked like a more complete player than he was a year ago.
“Right now it’s early, but what I see is that he’s got a much better grasp of what we’re doing defensively,” Smith said. “We’re asking him to not only just be able to rush the passer, be able to be a zone cover guy. Right now he’s done a great job, and it’s early right now but I think he’s going to have a big year this year.”
Miller credits many of his accomplishments as a pro to Smith, a man the second-year linebacker views as much more than just a position coach.
“Coach Smith, a huge part of my success as a rookie and to now is due to him,” Miller said. “He’s a great coach, he’s a great teacher and he stays on me. If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have all the success that I have had. That’s great. It goes past just a coach-player relationship. It’s more like a father-son relationship.”
Together with Dumervil, who got to the quarterback 9.5 times in 2011, Miller forms half of one of the league’s best pass-rushing duos. Players coming off of seasons with double-digit sack totals can sometimes struggle to produce at the same rate due to frequent double teams. But thanks to Dumervil, that’s the least of Miller’s worries.
“I’m not the only guy that can rush,” Miller said. “When I’m getting doubled, you have the other guy, he’ll have an easier load. It’s great having a guy like Elvis on our team, it really helps your situation out a lot. It’s great having a great pass rusher on the other side. I’ve never played with a guy that’s better than me like that on the other side, so that’s great.”
Dumervil isn’t the only teammate helping make Miller’s job easier. This offseason, the Broncos added a pair of proven veterans in cornerback
“Tracy, he’s a good corner, he’s already made a lot of plays for us,” Miller said. “Mike Adams, he’s a good safety, too. We’re still trying to mold as a defense, but they definitely help the situation out a lot.”
With an improved secondary giving him extra time to get to the quarterback, a complementary bookend in Dumervil and a position coach pushing him at every turn, Miller is surrounded by everything he needs to maximize his abilities.
“He’s got great potential,” Smith said. “He’s an outstanding athlete. He’s very athletic, great speed, great explosion, natural strength. I think if he continues to work at it, which he will, the sky’s the limit. He’s got a chance to be a very, very special player in this league for a long time.”