Rookie linebacker Von Miller's a keeper, and while the mania over Tim Tebow's play is the talk of the Rocky Mountain region, the Miller-led Broncos defense is the real reason why they've been able to come back late in scintillating games. And if the 5-5 Broncos are to stay in the AFC playoff race in the last six weeks, they'll need more of what Miller did against the Jets last week, starting Sunday in San Diego.
The transition from college pass-rusher to pro pass-rusher has eaten up some high draft picks in recent years. Aaron Curry, Jamaal Anderson, Aaron Maybin, Vernon Gholston and Derrick Morgan all either failed or are struggling mightily. But what's been eye-opening about Miller is his combo platter of speed and power. He leads all rookies with 9.5 sacks -- some from power moves, some from running around tackles -- and one against the Jets was a good example why the Broncos practically ran the card with his name to the draft podium last April when it was time to make the second overall pick.
If you watched the end of the Broncos' 17-13 victory, you saw Mark Sanchez set up to throw on a frenzied final New York drive, and you saw Miller lined up over the right tackle, Wayne Hunter. Miller weighs 243. Hunter's got Miller by 75 pounds; he's 318. At the snap of the ball, Hunter backpedaled to pass-block. No finesse from Miller, who ran hard and exploded into Hunter, knocking him backward to the ground. Sanchez had no chance. Miller smothered him for an eight-yard sack.
It was one of those moments when you look at a play and just gasp. Once or twice a game, Lawrence Taylor would recklessly spring into Washington tackle Joe Jacoby and try to knock his block off 25 years ago, and very occasionally it would work. It's one of those common moves by a rusher just to let the tackle know you'll be coming with power occasionally, and not just with speed around the edge or quickness on a stunt. But the suddenness, the ferocity ... and the fact that Hunter, an eight-year vet, got schooled by a rookie in his 10th NFL game ... it just all combined to be memorable.
"When you're both just standing there,'' Miller told me by phone from Denver, "it looks like weight means a lot. But when you're both moving, it really doesn't matter. When you get 'em off-balance, weight really doesn't count for anything. He was off-balance. I was fortunate, really. But that's just part of the game I play.''
What those who have watched Miller all season have seen is the speed, the power and the effort. "I'm going to attack and give relentless effort, fanatical effort,'' he said. "That's my formula, and I'm sticking to it. I try to get off the ball as fast as possible and react to whatever the offense is trying to do to me. I don't really have any premeditated moves.''
If Miller's accomplished all this so far -- 9.5 sacks, 48 tackles, 3 forced fumbles and 3 passes defensed -- with no premeditated moves, imagine what he'll do when he's got some plans. He rushes now with a frenzied approach; maybe that will work for a career. John Randle and Kevin Greene played that way, and it took them far. But it's pretty exciting to see what Miller's going to become. Paired with Elvis Dumervil, there aren't many better bookend pass-rush tag-teams playing right now.
And so far, he's not unhappy about being in the monstrous Tebow shadow. "Tim's a rock star,'' Miller said.
That he is. But Miller's likely to be a bigger reason why Denver stays in contention -- if the Broncos can.
Three games, three points:
Green Bay 27, Detroit 15. The Lions exit this game more immature than they entered it. The Ndamukong Suh ejection, 11 penalties (10 in the first 36 minutes, when it was a very close game throughout), and, overall, playing like they just couldn't keep their cool in a big game. The preposterous explanation by Suh about it not being his fault that he stomped Evan Dietrich-Smith with 25 minutes left shouldn't fly in the league office, and if this doesn't bring at least a one-game suspension, the league is all lip service when it comes to being serious about discipline for bush-league events like this.
Dallas 20, Miami 19. Close doesn't count in the NFL, but I'm really impressed with the Dolphins. Just think: Take away the one mis-snap between Mike Pouncey and Matt Moore (snapping in the shotgun was Pouncey's bugaboo in college and may still be) resulting in a five-yard Dallas touchdown drive, and Miami wins this game. It's probably not enough to save Tony Sparano's job, nor should it be, but whoever coaches this team in 2012 will be inheriting a strong defense that gets pressure on the quarterback, has a B-plus secondary and a made-to-order backup quarterback/rookie groomer in Matt Moore, who has revived his career quite nicely.
Baltimore 16, San Francisco 6. "The only way we figured to beat these guys the way they're built is to play the field-position game, and never give them a short field,'' said the Ravens' coach, John Harbaugh. The Ravens rush was stifling, never letting Alex Smith breathe ... and never allowing San Francisco inside the Baltimore 30 all night. Totally agreed with Mike Mayock: Great gameplan by rookie defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who saw a weak right side of the Niner line -- guard Chilo Rachal (who played the entire second half after starter Adam Snyder went down with a second-quarter pulled hamstring) and tackle Anthony Davis -- and exploited it. Baltimore had sacks on eight of San Francisco's nine possessions, and nine sacks in all.
Good podcast this week, Week 11 of the pod, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and my weekly spot with Bob McGinn. The podcast is on iTunes and on SI.com.
A couple of Goodell snippets:
On playing NFL games on days other than Sunday/Monday/Thursday: "I don't [see us expanding to other days of the week]. ... I think we like being special. I think we like having a day where you anticipate having football. I think when you have games every night of the week, as an example, it takes away from that uniqueness and that special nature of our game, which [is] event driven. So I don't see that.''
On moving the trade deadline back from mid-October: "I've always thought that trades are exciting in the NFL. I think our game is a little different than other sports in that teams aren't as reliant on trades, they build more through the draft. But it's exciting when you have a trade. It creates controversy, it creates a discussion among fans. I think the trading deadline is important in other sports. And I think the more we can put that kind of focus in football it's good.''
On whether he's spoken to NBA commissioner David Stern about the NBA's labor problems: "Yes, I speak to David Stern, as I do other commissioners, on a regular basis. ... I think I can only relay what I think was a critical point for us in our [negotiation], and the circumstances are always different. I think when litigation becomes so dominant, I think it obviously impacts on collective bargaining. And from what I've read -- and I only know from reports -- there has been no collective bargaining since the litigation really unfolded, 10 days or two weeks ago. That's unfortunate, because this will get solved through negotiation; it always does. And the parties need to be at the table. And our critical moment was when we had the principals sit face-to-face.''
Houston QB Matt Leinart (No. 11). This much we know: Leinart was drafted to save the Arizona Cardinals, lost his job to Kurt Warner, couldn't win the job over Max Hall when Warner retired, got cut, has sat for 1.5 years waiting for his moment, and has worked legitimately to salvage his career. This much we don't know: Whether he's accurate enough to win in the NFL. But I'd say he has a better chance in Houston than Arizona, because he's been humbled and because the line and weapons around him are better across the board. (Well, except for the Larry Fitzgerald/Andre Johnson wash at wideout.) He has a winnable first game at Jacksonville Sunday, but the story won't just be if the Texans can win without Matt Schaub. It'll be style points for the rusty Leinart.
1. Thanksgiving leftovers. What swell games! Panthers-Colts. Bucs-Titans. Browns-Bengals. Bills-Jets. Cards-Rams. Any way the NCAA would flex a good Saturday game to Sunday at 1?
2. The Ballad of Caleb Hanie. When last we saw young Mr. Hanie, he was first precocious and then generous (to B.J. Raji) in the NFC Championship Game. All through the offseason, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz looked like he wanted to go to battle with anyone but Hanie backing up Jay Cutler. But Trent Green and Kurt Warner weren't available. So Hanie goes to the Black Hole Sunday. And if you're a Bears fan, you've got to hope Brian Urlacher scores some points in the game.
3. Tebow. The Further Adventures of Tim Tebow continue Sunday at San Diego. But I think you knew this. It's been in all the papers.
4. John Elway's visage. Elway looked like he was clapping for the unknown 298th graduate in his kid's 400-person graduating class when Tim Tebow led the Broncos to the winning score against the Jets eight nights ago. If I'm the CBS crew in San Diego Sunday, I've got a camera trained on Elway's seat any time Tebow gets in the red zone.
5. Mark Sanchez, pressurized. His coach thinks he calls idiotic timeouts. His fans are turning on him, rapidly and rabidly. Sanchez needs a 300-yard game with zero turnovers against the Bills.
6. Ryan Fitzpatrick, doubted. His coach has no idea what's happened to his $10-million-a-year quarterback the last three weeks. His fans are bewildered. Fitzpatrick needs a 300-yard game with zero turnovers against the Jets.
7. Raheem Morris, questioned. He's been talking a better game than his team's played this year, and 2010 is rapidly degenerating into flukedom. All those who thought the Bucs would be allowing 10 points a game more than Houston through 10 games, raise your hands. Morris has to get tough with his 4-6 Bucs starting Sunday at Tennessee.
8. 107-114. That's Norv Turner's record in 14 seasons as an NFL head coach. If he wants a 15th, he can't be losing to Tim Tebow Sunday at home.
9. Pittsburgh vs. Pittsburgh-Midwestern Branch Campus. The Steelers travel to Kansas City Sunday to face coach Todd Haley, son of '70s Steelers architect Dick Haley, and the Steelers will try to shut down former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko throwing to first-round Pitt receiver Jonathan Baldwin.
10. The Suh Fallout. I expect to hear rampant speculation about how long Suh should be suspended, if at all, all weekend; the league won't make any determination until at least Tuesday. He missed the last 24 minutes of the game against Green Bay, and I could see the league adding one game on to that and saying, "That's it.''