How Would Von Miller's Potential Suspension Affect the Denver Broncos?

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystAugust 19, 2013

The NFL wants to suspend Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller for six to eight games, but the NFLPA wants the suspension reduced to four games, sources confirmed to Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman.

Per the report from Freeman, Miller provided a diluted urine sample, and the league believes he was trying to pass the test by drinking excessive amounts of water, but the union is claiming otherwise. It's an issue that is only further complicated because the NFL and NFLPA are still working on the drug policy from the 2006 collective bargaining agreement, according to Albert Breer of  

Miller's absence has the potential to significantly affect the Broncos for however long he is out, but the team's long-term prospects are still very good. Since the Broncos have known about Miller’s suspension for a “substantial amount of time,” according to ESPN’s Ed Werder, they should have a comprehensive plan for surviving without him.

Outside of quarterback Peyton Manning, no other player is as important or irreplaceable as linebacker Miller in Denver.

Surviving without Miller, though, is appreciably easier when Manning is under center. There's no doubt the defense will be harmed, but it takes offense, defense and special teams playing together to win games.

Surviving is also a lot easier if there is a well-designed plan for that survival. Being able to prepare for life without a player is a lot better than being without him unexpectedly—as would be the case with an injury. There has been plenty of time to prepare the defense for Miller’s absence.

The Broncos had a great offense last year. It's plenty capable of running roughshod over the Oakland Raiders in Week 3 and clipping the wings of Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4.

However, the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants in Weeks 1 and 2 are capable of slowing them down and scoring points against a Denver defense without Miller—especially if cornerback Champ Bailey can't play.

If the suspension is six games, Miller would then miss a road game against the Dallas Cowboys and a home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars probably can't score enough points to keep up with the Broncos, but the Cowboys have that capability.

Should the negotiation prove fruitless and Miller is given an eight-game suspension, the Broncos would be without him for two key games in Weeks 7 and 8 against the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III could carve through Denver's secondary if the Broncos can't figure out how to get pressure without Miller.


Mitigating the Loss

It’s possible the Broncos knew about Miller's potential suspension when they signed veteran free-agent pass-rusher Shaun Phillips in April.

Many people assumed that signing Phillips was a response to losing pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens after a snafu with a fax forced the team to release him, but that may not be the case.

Phillips and Miller are the same height, within five pounds in weight and listed as strong-side linebackers on the team’s official website. Playing the same position doesn’t always equal the same role on defense, but it’s safe to assume that rushing the quarterback is a strength for both.

The thinking when Phillips was signed was that the Broncos might use more three-man fronts, with Phillips and Miller lining up on opposite ends of the line. That may happen at some point, but it’s also possible Phillips was brought in to take Miller’s role on defense for the first four games just in case his appeal failed.

After selecting defensive tackle Sylvester Williams with their first-round pick, using a three-man front may not be a great fit for the defensive personnel. Either the Broncos knew about Miller’s suspension when they signed Phillips, or they did one heck of a job finding a player who could play in Miller’s place just in case he had to miss games.

Fortunately for the Broncos, this isn’t Phillips’ first rodeo—actually it’s far from it.

Phillips is a seasoned pass-rusher who can alleviate some of the loss from Miller for a short period of time, but he also might be on the decline. Having Phillips play in Miller's absence is a lot less concerning for four games than it is for eight games.

The 32-year-old Phillips has been through five different defensive coordinators in his nine-year career and knows a thing or two about rushing the passer from the left side like Miller. If the Broncos had planned to throw Phillips out there on the left side to replace some of the production lost from Dumervil, they would be taking a chance he could make that transition.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Phillips rushed 66 percent of the time from the left side in 2012. Phillips rushed just 16 percent from the right side, which is actually his highest percentage rushing from the right in the five years Pro Football Focus has been compiling this data.

Rookie linebackers Quanterus Smith and Lerentee McCray could also play key roles, as well as second-year defensive end Malik Jackson. The Broncos are going to need several players to provide pressure on the quarterback when Miller is out.


Deploying the Three-Headed Monster

Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

This is especially true in today’s NFL. The New Orleans Saints won seven games last year by scoring 461 points on offense, even though their defense allowed 451 points and an NFL-record 7,042 yards.

Fortunately for the Broncos, they can simply deploy their three-headed wide receiver attack featuring Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker. Manning has so many great targets, the Broncos can compensate for defensive weaknesses simply by being amazing on offense.

Losing Miller hurts, but the NFL’s No. 2 scoring offense from last year has even more weapons at its disposal. If the Broncos can score 481 points after stumbling a little bit out of the gate, they can surely score a lot more in 2013.

Assuming the Broncos' defense is average without Miller, that’s still less than a five-point swing per game based on last year’s stats. Denver’s offense from last year would still have a full touchdown-per-game point differential advantage. The Broncos were that good.

The 2013 offense should be capable of making up more of the difference, particularly if the additions of Welker and rookie running back Montee Ball make a positive impact.

The 2012 New England Patriots and 2011 Green Bay Packers scored roughly five more points per game on offense than the Broncos last year, so we know great offenses are capable of putting up those types of numbers.

At worst, Denver’s defense goes from in the top five to below average without Miller, but the offense is plenty good enough to absorb that kind of loss. 

The Broncos have everything they need to survive without Miller, probably because they have known this was a possibility for some time. Anywhere from four to six games without Miller wouldn't be too damaging as long as Manning is healthy.

Even if Miller is suspended for eight games, the defense stinks without him and the Broncos start 4-4, they wouldn't be out of the playoff conversation. The AFC West doesn't appear to be a strong division right now, so the Broncos could turn on the jets in the second half once they get Miller and his fresh legs back.

As long as Miller is healthy and productive for at least eight games and Manning is under center, the Broncos should still be considered a favorite in the AFC. Any panic should probably be saved for whenever Manning runs, falls or is hit by a defender. 


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