ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the wake of Von Miller's season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Broncos' hope rests in citing their record in the six games he missed to a substance abuse suspension: 6-0.
"When he was out, we were still undefeated. We were able to still win as a team," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "Guys just have to step up and pick up the slack."
Replacing Miller will be a team effort. Nate Irving will fill in for the Broncos at strongside linebacker in the base defense; he handled that work in Weeks 1-6 and did so again Sunday.
For the defensive end/pass-rush part of Miller's role, Robert Ayers and Jeremy Mincey appear most likely to see an increase in repetitions, with Shaun Phillips continuing to play extensively. If and when Derek Wolfe returns from his recent health issues, he could provide some relief for Phillips at defensive end in the base defense. Malik Jackson, whose workload has increased in Wolfe's absence, could also be an option as he continues his hybrid inside-outside role.
"Anytime you take any of those caliber of players, it's more of a 'next men up' kind of approach," said Head Coach John Fox, tweaking one the philosophical maxims upon which he's leaned heavily this year.
Overall the defense is more efficient against the pass with Miller in the lineup, using comparisons that include Sunday's game:
- Yards per play: With Miller, 5.00; without, 5.80.
- Yards per pass play: With Miller, 5.51; without, 7.07.
- Percentage of pass plays that gain first downs: With Miller, 30.97 percent; without, 32.14.
But by other metrics -- particularly measuring the run -- the defense was better without Miller, although other factors such as the neck injury Wesley Woodyard suffered in Week 5, just under two games before Miller's return, and the season-ending injury to Kevin Vickerson must be noted:
- Yards per rush: With Miller, 4.36; without, 3.18.
- Percentage of runs that gain first downs: With Miller, 23.87 percent; without, 18.24.
Curiously, the Broncos' pass-rush production has been comparable:
- Quarterback hits: With Miller, one every 7.56 pass plays; without, one ever 7.51 pass plays.
- Hurries (as measured by ProFootballFocus.com): With Miller, one every 2.77 pass plays; without, one every 2.61 pass plays.
- Sacks: With Miller, one every 16.32 pass plays; without, one every 15.40 pass plays.
Some of that is due to the fact that the Broncos have replicated their pass-rush production by using their nickel linebackers (Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan) and defensive backs to blitz more often without Miller in the lineup.
The Broncos have hit opposing quarterbacks 41 times during the eight-plus games Miller played, and 41 times the rest of the season. In Miller's time, just three of the hits were by the defensive backs, Woodyard and Trevathan. When Miller was out, 13 of the hits came from those groupings: seven from Woodyard, two from Trevathan, two from Harris, one from Mike Adams and one from David Bruton.
Harris' pass-rush production might fall to Champ Bailey, who worked at the slot Sunday, which allowed for a natural limit on his repetitions as he rebuilds confidence in the left foot he injured in August.
"I'm pretty sure we'll have a lot of games going on with the (defensive) line, be sending Champ a lot," Harris said. "That's what we do, so I expect us to continue to do some creative stuff. On the back end, me and DRC (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) just got to hold up and try to by the D-Line some time."
The other factor that will help is the emergence of interior pass rushers. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton logged just one quarterback hit and no sacks during Miller's suspension of Weeks 1-6, but has four sacks and six quarterback hits since then. Rookie Sylvester Williams has also improved recently; he has three tackles for losses and two quarterback hits the last two weeks after having just two tackles for losses and one quarterback hit in the first 13 games.
Their growth might make an increased reliance on blitzes less necessary, but Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio will lean on every possible gambit with a proper risk-reward ratio to replace Miller.