ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --If Von Miller's suspension was two games, he would miss two against teams that had winning records in 2013. If it was four, he'd miss two games against teams with winning records. Now that it extends into mid-October, they'll still play two games without Miller against teams that finished above .500, and the six games come against teams that were a combined 37-59 in 2012.
But there's no guarantee that these foes will remain at that level, and the fact that the two previous winners happen to be the last two world champions demonstrates the degree of the early challenge the Broncos' battered defense now faces.
Nevertheless, the absence of a team that won more than 10 games last year in the first six weeks is the only solace the Broncos can take from the suspension -- that he will return in time for a five-week stretch that features three games against Indianapolis, Washington and New England, and that begins a seven-game run that includes five games against teams with mobile, athletic quarterbacks: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Alex Smith (twice) and Jake Locker. And the other two games in that run are against teams led by still-dangerous Philip Rivers, who has more wins against the Broncos than any other active quarterback, and Tom Brady.
By comparison, the Broncos will likely see one, or at most two, mobile quarterbacks in the first six games, depending on whether Terrelle Pryor seizes the starting job in Oakland or not.
For now, the Broncos will likely fill in for Miller collectively.
"There's always a plan, because you don't know what's going to happen next in this league," Head Coach John Fox said.
Shaun Phillips will likely work more in pass-rush situations where Miller would ordinarily line up at defensive end. The domino effect is that it could Robert Ayers in on virtually every down. This is also because of the neck injury to Derek Wolfe, who often moves inside but can stay outside if the need arises. Malik Jackson has replaced Wolfe while he heals and handles the same hybrid inside/outside role. If the Broncos want more speed on the edge, they could opt to use Phillips at one defensive end slot and Jeremy Beal at the other in pass-rush situations. Beal is a seventh-round pick in 2011 who spent his rookie year on the practice squad and his second season on injured reserve. He has turned in some solid work in the preseason, but the next regular-season snap he takes will be his first.
Nate Irving is currently expected to be the strongside linebacker; from that spot, he forced a fumble that led to the only touchdown against San Francisco, but that was against the second-teamers. Paris Lenon, who signed with the Broncos on Tuesday, could be in the mix on the strong side, but he said he would "probably feel more comfortable" working inside rather than outside. Lenon and Fox both noted that there had been no decision made as to where the 12th-year veteran would line up, but that could change now that Miller's suspension has crystallized.
Phillips can still be an effective pass rusher, and while an every-down role at this point in his career is not optimal, he has proven effective enough as a nickel and dime rusher from the edge this summer to be an asset in that role.
But truly replacing Miller is virtually impossible. So forget about that.
His first-half work in Saturday's 40-10 loss to the Seahawks reflected this; although he didn't notch a sack, he helped stop a fourth-and-1 run, stunted inside with Mitch Unrein to force an errant Russell Wilson pass and set up Wesley Woodyard's 1-yard sack with pressure that forced Wilson out of the pocket -- and was only stopped because Robert Turbin nearly clotheslined him.
Miller sets the entire defense up for big plays, even when he doesn't actually make it onto the stat sheet. Few are better at steering a running back outside of his blocking lanes and to the edge, where the sideline and a cornerback or two are often waiting, making Miller a vital element of Chris Harris' emergence as a run defender.
Miller's absence is bad enough. It's complicated by the haziness of potential availability for Wolfe and cornerback Champ Bailey. Both were fortunate to avoid more severe injuries, but if they are sidelined for a significant length of time in the regular season, the Broncos will likely open the year with seven defensive starters who were not in the starting lineup at the end of the 2012 season, exacerbating the absence of Miller. Further, the absence of Bailey, Miller and the release and departure of Elvis Dumervil means that the Broncos won't have a defender who's made the Pro Bowl in their uniform.
The cliche' "next man up" will always be thrown around in situations like this, but you've only got so many "next men" available before a unit appreciably declines.
"I know it is 'next man up,'" but (Miller) is a hard man to replace," Fox said.
Further, "next men" are usually backups for a reason: they're either not of the same quality as the starters or are unknown quantities. In some cases, you'll find a potential gem: the recent work of safety Duke Ihenacho for evidence.
But life without Miller -- and potentially Wolfe and Bailey, as well -- likely means more points allowed on the scoreboard, and a greater burden on the offense to generate touchdowns and clock-chewing possessions that relieve the stress on a defense that is likely stretched to or beyond its limit on the losses it can bear.