ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --Von Miller has been back for three games, and the transformation of the Broncos' defense in that span is undeniable -- even though his sack pace -- 0.67 per game -- is just a bit off what he amassed last year.
But sacks are only one measurement. Miller also pressured Philip Rivers five times, by my unofficial count -- a tally that ProFootballFocus.com corroborates -- and helped set up five of Rivers' 10 incompletions in the Broncos' 28-20 win on Sunday:
Miller disrupted Rivers in a variety of ways beyond his one sack. On one incompletion, he stunted inside, which freed up Kevin Vickerson on the outside to get pressure that forced a throw into tight coverage by Chris Harris, Jr. He set up Vickerson for another pressure by drawing a double-team. He pushed right guard Jeromey Clary back into the pocket, supplementing a blitz from Omar Bolden and Mike Adams. He forced a hurried throw after sprinting past D.J. Fluker to the outside. And finally, he forced Rivers to throw outside by covering Danny Woodhead out of the backfield, immediately forcing Rivers to throw in the opposite direction, and into double coverage.
This doesn't even account for Miller's impact in the run game, which continues to improve via his ability to quickly escape a blocker and make lateral pursuit to cut off lanes.
But Miller's impact is most profound in the big picture, when looking at how opponents have fared in the passing game relative to their averages. The only front-seven player with this sort of impact that can be measured via his absence is Wesley Woodyard, who missed two full games, three quarters of a third and two plays in San Diego.
Relative to opponents' averages, the numbers illustrate their impacts:
- With Woodyard and Miller healthy, opponents' average passing yardage per 60 minutes is down by 34.9 percent, and their per-pass-play average is off by 31.5 percent.
- With Miller healthy and Woodyard injured, opponents' per-game passing yardage is down by 13.3 percent, and their per-pass-play average is down 17.7 percent.
- With Woodyard healthy and Miller out, opponents averaged 42.9 percent more passing yardage per game and 17.9 percent more per pass play.
- Without both players available, foes averaged 52.6 percent more passing yardage per game and 50.9 percent more yardage per pass play.
FINDING THE SOFT SPOT:
In "Star Wars," it took the sacrifice of nearly all of the Rebel Alliance's stunt fighters and the intervention of Obi-Wan Kenobi, whispering from the nether reaches of the Force to exploit the Death Star's weakness: a thermal exhaust port. In San Diego, this only required three snaps against the Chargers defense -- or as long as it took for Peyton Manning to hook up with Julius Thomas for a 74-yard touchdown.
On the play, San Diego is in a cover-two look with its safeties, but with left cornerback Derek Cox lining up nine yards off the line of scrimmage. With left outside linebacker Larry English rushing the passer, the underneath outside responsibility falls to left inside linebacker Manti Te'o, since safety Eric Weddle is occupied by Eric Decker, who sprints upfield 18 yards before cutting out to the sideline.
Te'o on Thomas is a mismatch. He can't catch up to Thomas, who has moved into the right flat. As soon as Manning sees Thomas outside and wide open, he fires the pass. With space to work with, Thomas can put himself in proper position to start his sprint up the right sideline, so he turns and catches the ball in front of him. Te'o is seven yards away at the moment of Thomas's catch and has no chance to run down the third-year tight end unless he gets help from a defender.
That leaves Cox and Weddle. Decker blocks Cox, and then releases him; usually, this would have ensured that Cox pushes Thomas out of bounds, limiting the play to a 24-yard gain -- especially given Thomas' narrow lane up the right sideline. But Cox is too late and barely gets an arm on him. Weddle appears to have conceded his role on the play; instead of moving upfield to prevent Thomas from going farther up the sideline, he hesitates and is out of position.
That the play worked for a first down and a gain of 20-plus yards was the product of good game-planning. That it turned into a touchdown was a result of the Chargers' inability to properly respond -- not unlike the Galactic Empire's delayed, and ultimately doomed, response to being attacked by two squadrons of rickety, one-man spacecraft.