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In long-awaited returns, Courtland Sutton and Von Miller show why they could return to old heights

DENVER — The performances weren't shabby.

Let's start there, because in their first game action since suffering season-ending injuries in 2020, both Courtland Sutton and Von Miller looked the part.

In limited action, Sutton caught a pair of passes for 27 yards and a touchdown, and Miller recorded three tackles, one of which came on a 1-yard scramble that was nearly a sack.

So while their respective returns to the field were partially symbolic and partially a tune-up for the regular season, each player took advantage of their limited reps.

It's certainly true, though, that while their plays meant something in relation to the Broncos' 17-12 win over the Los Angeles Rams, they meant more in comparison to what happened last fall and what could still come as the Broncos turn the page to the 2021 regular season.

A year ago, Sutton missed the Broncos' first game with a shoulder injury before he tore his ACL just 31 snaps into his season. He entered the 2020 season hoping to improve upon a Pro Bowl campaign in 2019 in which he caught 72 passes for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. Instead, his season ended before it truly began.

His touchdown catch in the north end zone on Sunday was his latest step in an arduous journey back, and it was his first score since he caught a pair of touchdowns in Drew Lock's first start on Dec. 1, 2019. On Saturday, in Bridgewater's first start since being named the team's starting quarterback, Sutton found the end zone again.

"It was nice," Sutton said. "[It was] one of the big things I wanted to do. I looked at it as part of my rehab — get in the game and go back and make game reps. You know, game plays. You can go out there and practice as hard as you want, but in the game, something is a little different. Being able to go out there and get those game reps, it was really nice and promising for sure."

And while the touchdown catch itself was fairly routine — Sutton broke free from the cornerback and worked his way back toward Teddy Bridgewater in the end zone for an easy grab — the reaction was not. Sutton was mobbed in the end zone and on the sideline as scores of his teammates congratulated him.

"It was a special moment, and I know it was special for 'Court,'" Bridgewater said. "I've been in a similar situation where you overcome an injury and you enjoy those small victories that boosts your confidence and boosts your mental. That moment — it was so special for Court and it was special for this team because we know how much Court means to us. You watch him every day come out to work and he's working extremely hard and he's putting the extra work in. He's doing the little things that go unnoticed sometimes. The touchdown play — it was third down and long. He's a special guy, a selfless guy. He has a big heart. He loves football and he loves this team."

Added Head Coach Vic Fangio: "Yeah, it definitely gives him a confidence boost. Just to be out there playing, running routes, out there competing [and] knowing he could get hit for the first time. He hadn't played since the second game last year, so it's good to get him out there. It was a bonus that he caught some balls [and] caught a touchdown, but the important thing was just getting him out there playing."

Miller's 2020 season ended two weeks before Sutton's, as he suffered an ankle injury in the leadup to the team's Week 1 game against the Titans. There was no guarantee Miller would even be on the team in 2021, as the Broncos had to pick up his team option this offseason. They chose to make that move, and he returned to the Empower Field at Mile High grass for the first time since Dec. 29, 2019. Miller's latest sack, the 106th of his career, came that afternoon against the Raiders.

For Miller, his first action since that December day felt somewhat pedestrian.

"Whenever you're at rehab, all you think about is 'Man, I can't wait to play football,' and when you get out there, you don't think about it," Miller said. "It's always the next play. It's about doing something crazy and getting a sack or doing it for the win. You don't really reflect on rehab. I did kind of look up and really take in the environment we have here in Broncos Country. We had 53,000 fans here. Last year, we didn't have any. It felt really good to be back in the stadium and be back with all of the guys. It was a great day."

As Sutton and Miller stood at the podium for a joint postgame press conference, it was apparent that Saturday's game was more than a benchmark to clear. It was more than a celebration of what they'd overcome. It was also a sign of what could still transpire this fall and beyond.

Though both players were admittedly working against the Rams' reserves, Sutton showed the ability to create separation and make plays. Miller demonstrated both his quickness off the edge and in the gap, as he shot up to make a couple of run stops. Both Sutton and Miller, who said they have grown close during the rehab process, seem to have more to give.

"He just has something about him that I learned tonight," Bridgewater said of Sutton. "He has this fire on game day. Sometimes in practice, you see guys, and you're like, 'Oh, this guy is this way, this guy is that way.' His eyes are lit up. He's angry. I used to be like, 'Does Court ever get mad?' On game day, he's angry. He's angry because he knows that he's a special player and he's knows how special he can be in this league. It was huge for him to get that touchdown. We're all excited, and we look forward to what's in store."

Miller, meanwhile, believes he can still replicate the Pro Bowl-caliber play that he's shown throughout his career.

"I feel like the old Von has never left," Miller said. "I still feel like I got a little bit more. If I can get a sack and they go crazy out there, I feel like I could do more. If I'm not winning the game single-handedly, I still feel like I can do more of this. … All I want to do is make game-changing plays for my teammates, whether that's a run or a pass or a play-action or any play. I hold myself to a super high standard. 

"I know you guys hold us to a super high standard, but I feel like I hold myself way higher."

If there are more touchdowns and sacks to come, Broncos fans will surely be pleased. Sutton and Miller are more than just a feel-good story; they each have the potential to be the best player on their respective side of the ball.

They've each filled that role before. If Saturday's game was any indication, they could certainly do so again.

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