Denver’s Defensive Difference-Makers

Thursday October 30th, 2014

DENVER — This begins with a soufflé.

Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton ordered the dish at a Denver-area Maggiano’s on Oct. 17, two days before his team throttled San Francisco, 42-17, in Week 7. DeMarcus Ware finished with three sacks, his most in a game since Jan. 1, 2011, and Von Miller had two in the win. It was the Broncos’ best pass-rushing performance of the season, and Ware, he’s crediting the soufflé.

“They’re very superstitious,” Ware says of Miller and Knighton, his dining partners that day at the Italian chain restaurant and his partners on the Denver front seven. Their habits must be rubbing off, because after the Broncos’ 35-21 victory over the Chargers in Week 8, Ware made a suggestion: Knighton needs to order that soufflé again. At the trio’s next weekly lunch, moved from Friday to Wednesday because of the Broncos’ Thursday-night game, the defensive tackle had ordered lasagna. The result? Miller sacked Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers just once, and Ware was shut out.

The Maggiano’s meal is a weekly tradition, steeped in ritual. Sometimes the restaurant takes care of the bill, but other times it’s one of the three who pays, and if a particularly good game follows that lunch, you know the same guy is ponying up again the next week. Same goes for orders: A successful soufflé might mean a season of them. The lunch is more for team-building than anything else, Ware says, and perhaps the most notable thing about it is the attendees.

Opposing quarterbacks like Geno Smith have been feeling the full brunt of the  Ware-Miller tag team this season. (John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty Images) Opposing quarterbacks like Geno Smith have been feeling the full brunt of the Ware-Miller tag team this season. (John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty Images)

Ware, the defensive end who joined Denver from Dallas in the offseason, and Knighton, who came over last season from Jacksonville, are the Broncos’ defensive captains, the former a likely future Hall of Famer in his 10th season in the NFL, the latter a vocal leader in his sixth. They are the public faces of the defense, responsible for setting the tone in the locker room and providing veteran leadership. And then there is Miller, the 25-year-old linebacking hotshot who had 30 sacks over his first two seasons but became something of a pariah last year after being served a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s drug policy. He isn’t a captain. To some he might not even seem like a leader, but Miller cares little about how things seem. He never has.

“Even though I don’t have a C on my chest, I’ve been through a lot of stuff that I could talk to these guys about,” Miller says. “The guys look up to me. They put me in a leadership position. The C is great, but my role on the team is totally different from just being a captain who’s visible. I’m the people’s captain in that locker room.”

* * *

Miller’s back strong after an aborted 2013 that saw him suspended and then injured. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Miller’s back strong after an aborted 2013 that saw him suspended and then injured. (David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

On Oct. 14, 2013, Miller returned to the Broncos’ locker room for the first time since his suspension was handed down that August. He was 15 pounds heavier, his neck seemingly devoured by his hulking upper body, and his repentance was inconsistent at best. His pre-planned lines were rote—“I'm working hard to gain everybody's trust back,” he said that day. “I'm just going to continue to take it one day at a time”—but when the questions went off-script, so did Miller, and not well. "I can't sit here and say 'This is never going to happen' or 'I'm never going to do this,’” he told reporters that day when asked if he could say he’d never violate the policy again. “I'd be lying.”

“There’s a real competition there,” Del Rio says of his new sack duo, “but it’s respectful and it’s healthy, so it’s good for the team.”

The rest of Miller’s shortened season was equally disheartening. Off the field the player who had been one of the most dynamic personalities in the Broncos locker room seemed almost invisible, and on it, the added weight slowed him. When Miller’s season ended early, with a Week 16 ACL tear, he had amassed just five sacks and eight quarterback hits in nine games.

Meanwhile, in Dallas, Ware slogged through the most difficult year of his career. After undergoing shoulder surgery during the 2013 offseason, Ware was moved from outside linebacker to defensive end in the Cowboys’ switch from a 3-4 to 4-3 defensive scheme, which necessitated the 6-4, 258-pound Ware’s lining up against offensive linemen sometimes nearly 100 pounds heavier than him. That inauspicious start preceded a quadriceps injury and a nagging elbow problem that lingered throughout the season. Even so, Ware played in 13 games for the Cowboys—the three he missed were the first of his career—but he was hobbled throughout, logging fewer sacks (six) and tackles (28) than in any previous season. In February he underwent right elbow surgery to correct a nerve problem, and the following month the Cowboys cut him.

Ware (94) and Miller provide the pressure, while Knighton (98) lends beef to the run defense. (John Leyba/Denver Post/Getty Images) Ware (94) and Miller provide the pressure, while Knighton (98) lends beef to a run defense that’s allowing a league-low 72.4 yards per game. (John Leyba/Denver Post/Getty Images)

On March 12, Ware flew to Denver to visit the Broncos. By midday he’d signed, part of a defensive rebuild, along with safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib. Denver would feature Ware as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme that’s more suited to his talents. But as much as the Broncos hoped to lean on their free-agent acquisitions, they knew that their defense would only be great come fall if it could rely on some of the injured players it would get back, cornerback Chris Harris and, of course, Miller.

Flash back seven months, to the day Ware signed in Denver. He was trotted out to the media almost immediately upon putting ink to paper, and it took just three questions for Miller’s name to come up. Ware brought him up first, explaining that Miller’s presence and the Broncos’ unrealized pass-rushing potential swayed him to sign. But the two have a connection that’s bigger than their complementary play: Miller grew up a Cowboys fan in the Dallas suburb of DeSoto, and by the time he headed to the NFL, Ware knew all about the young talent down the road. The two began to work together each offseason, sharing tips and discussing strategy, and last August, when Ware heard the news of his young friend’s suspension, he cringed. Mired in his own struggles, though, he did not get a chance to speak Miller until after the season. When he did, he didn’t focus on what Miller had done wrong, but how it could all get better.

Ware has always been impressed with Miller’s physical ability and his potential. But it took working out and playing alongside him to fully realize how talented he is. “Coming here, working out in the offseason,” Ware says, “I’m like, Dang, he’s faster than I thought. He works harder than I thought he worked. He’s gotten everything back together.”

* * *

Miller and Ware’s combined 16 sacks exceeds the total for 14 entire teams through Week 8. (John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB) Miller and Ware’s combined 16 sacks through Week 8 exceeds the total for 15 entire teams. (John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

Through Week 8 of 2014, Miller (9 sacks) and Ware (7) have already combined for 16 sacks in seven games. That’s more sacks than 15 entire teams have, and five of those teams have played a full game more than the Broncos. It may be early, but Ware and Miller look to be flirting with history; only 17 pairs of teammates ever have logged seven or more sacks apiece through their team’s first seven games, and if the two keep up their current pace they’ll finish with a combined 37 sacks—which is more than 12 teams had last year.

Last spring during the Broncos’ organized team activities Ware made what at the time sounded like a big claim. He hoped that he and Miller could finish 2014 with more sacks than an entire team, he said. Now, though, it sounds humble. One team? That’s been done before, by dozens of pairs of teammates. What Miller and Ware look to be on pace to do is bigger than that, something resembling what Chris Doleman and Keith Millard accomplished for the 1989 Vikings. That year the duo finished with 39 combined sacks (21 for Doleman, 18 for Millard), which was more than 14 teams. They are the only pair of teammates to finish a season with 15 or more sacks apiece. These two Broncos are in realistic pursuit of their mark.

Thus far the combination of Ware and Miller has been everything Denver expected. Ware isn’t struggling in the 4-3 like he did in Dallas last year, in part because he’s healthy but largely due to the way the Broncos are using him. Like Miller, he lines up at times with his hand on the ground, other times in a two-point stance, and both players play somewhat hybrid roles. And as Ware and the team’s other additions acclimate, Denver’s defense looks to be improving. The Broncos struggled early in the year to stop opponents on third down, but once the defensive line stiffened, the defense as a whole began to thrive. With Knighton, Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe combining to slow, if not stop, opposing running games—the Broncos are allowing an NFL-low 72.4 rushing yards per game, though part of that is because teams have to pass to play catch-up with Peyton Manning’s explosive attack—defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has been able to scheme more aggressively against effectively one-dimensional opponents.

“There’s a real competition there, but it’s respectful and it’s healthy, so it’s good for the team,” Del Rio says of Ware and Miller. “Obviously as a defensive coordinator, having a couple special guys on the edge makes life good for me. But it comes down to us as a team playing well together, the coverage that allows the rush to get there, how it goes hand-in-hand.”

* * *

When the Broncos defense holds its meetings each week to prepare for third-down situations, the group rearranges its seating chart. For other meetings, the two captains, Knighton and Ware, sit next to each other, but for third-down prep, Miller slides into Knighton’s seat. Ware and Miller use that time to scheme, to draw their plans, mad scientists in the meeting room. Knighton is more than willing to cede his place of power. He’s seen what the pair can do, seen the effect Ware has on Miller. The calm veteran has a way of reaching Miller that few others in Denver’s locker room do, and the effect has been tangible. Miller is back, on the field and off, the physical terror and the offbeat personality you’d be hard-pressed to identify except for his aviator glasses and cowboy hat.

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It’s impossible to say what kind of player, what kind of person, Miller would be had Ware decided to choose another of his many suitors last winter. But there’s no denying that lining up alongside one of his childhood heroes has changed Miller for the better, and the pairing has seemed to energize Ware, too. This is a new chapter for him, a chance to help a younger player and push himself in the process. A chance to finally win a ring after so many years of mediocrity in Dallas.

“We already had that closeness, that brotherhood, but now we’re playing on the same team,” Ware says. “It’s great to be playing with a guy like Von. I can’t do half of the stuff he does. He’s a phenom. He’s one of those type of guys where you don’t know what he’s going to do, so you just go and let him rush.”

That doesn’t mean Miller doesn’t still need guidance off the field, though. There are still moments when Ware feels the need to sit down with Miller, to invite him to dinner and talk him through some issue or other. In those instances Ware often asks the younger player how long he’s been in the league, a rhetorical question. Four years.

“Dude, I’m at 10,” Ware says. “Whatever you’ve done, I’ve done too.”

Ware isn’t talking about the suspension, the disgrace. No, he means the injuries, the obstacles, the hard days and the best ones. He means that Miller is following in his footsteps, and can continue to.

“At the end of the day,” Ware has told Miller, “you’re going to be as good as you want to be. You’re the best athlete I’ve seen rushing the passer.”

From anyone else, that’s flattery. From Ware, it’s a challenge for Miller to be as good as he was. To be better.

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