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For a fraction of a second, Von Miller was
going in the wrong direction. After dropping back into coverage and watching tight end Rob Gronkowski move inside, Miller stood perpendicular to the line of scrimmage as he watched Tom Brady out of the corner of his eye. And then it happened.
Miller, in a blur, swirled 180 degrees and stared Brady dead in the eye before leaping to snag his pass.
On back-to-back plays last Sunday in the AFC championship game, the outside linebacker first took Brady off his feet, hitting him on a first down, then fooling him on that second down for an interception that set up a Broncos touchdown.
By game's end, Miller not only had the interception and four of the Broncos' 20 hits on Brady, but also 2½ sacks, a franchise playoff record.
"He gets almost parallel to the ground," said ESPN NFL analyst Tom Jackson, a former Broncos linebacker. "When he's turning the corner, he is so low. There was one sack he got — where he ran up behind Brady — I almost lost him in the pack, because I lost sight of him as he turned the corner. Tremendous speed. Great get-off. He's got all of those things, and a lot of people would just take one of those."
Miller put together one of the team's best defensive performances in playoff history on the biggest stage he had ever performed. But it was also the culmination of something else, an evolution of sorts that unfolded over the last couple of seasons.
"Wanting" the ball
Dave Meadows chuckled as he recalled Miller's request in 2006. Then the coach at DeSoto (Texas) High School, Meadows watched Miller rack up 76 tackles and six sacks as a senior, but there was one play that stuck with him.
"He always bugged us about wanting to handle the ball somehow," Meadows said. "So his senior year — he was fast enough now; he was a (4.5-second) guy in the 40 — I told him he could return kickoffs. Well, the first game that he really got a shot at one, he ran one back 75 yards and it wore him out so much, he was pretty much shot. He couldn't play defense like himself for a while. He kept doing it, and he worked hard at it. He was pretty good. He was an unusual-looking kickoff guy back there, at 6-3, 215, but he could go."
Long-armed and skinny, Miller's upper body had trouble keeping up with his lower half. The hours in the weight room were harder than the ones on the field, Meadows said. But the raw talent and sheer athleticism were obvious.
"He was a mismatch almost all the way through for an offensive lineman, just so quick and limber," Meadows said. "I'm sure you've seen he can bend around those offensive tackles just before they're ready for him. He can almost go two directions at once. His head and shoulders are reaching around the guy for the quarterback and his feet are still moving forward."
Other signs of the Miller that Broncos fans see today were also obvious. The happy-go-lucky Miller of today was a jokester then. His short attention span required his coach to keep tabs on his whereabouts. But when it was time to take the field, Meadows said, Miller was all business.
"Sometimes being popular is not a good thing, because they get involved in silliness and there was some of that with Von," Meadows said. "Kind of a typical kid. But he matured."
By the end of his high school career, Miller was displaying the athleticism that helped him wreak havoc on offensive linemen throughout his four years at Texas A&M.
The 2010 Butkus Award winner and the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, behind Cam Newton, was that rare, complete package.
But even the shiniest gems need occasional buffing.
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The first big blow was the six-game suspension, a punishment in 2013 that cost Miller more than $800,000 in salary for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and, at the time, had a chance of costing his team much more.
When Miller returned later that season, after the Broncos' 6-0 run without him, he brought along some extra pounds, weight that appeared to hinder his explosiveness off the line. But the final blow to an already trying season was dealt less than two months later when Miller tore his anterior cruciate ligament, forcing him to miss the end of the regular season and the Broncos' trip to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Denver, of course, went on to get blown out 43-8 at the hands of Seattle. Miller went on to rehab, spending many days in the training room alongside cornerback Chris Harris, who also missed the Super Bowl because of a torn ACL.
Miller's next return proved to be his most important, a transformation his teammates noticed early — "Just his practice habits. More focused in the film room," Harris said — that escalated with the arrival of one his idols, DeMarcus Ware.
Ware, a nine-time Pro Bowler who signed with the Broncos as a free agent in March 2014, was the walking example Miller needed at the time he needed it most.
In his two seasons in Denver, Ware has had a steadying influence on Miller, who led the Broncos with 14 sacks and 28 quarterback hits in 2014.
"Your coaches always tell you what leadership looks like, you got all the greats that come here and they tell you this and they tell you that, but having a real-life example right across from you, and him being my idol, it was just great," Miller said. "I could come in and see what type of shoes he wears every day, how he laces up his shoes, how he came to work, how he handles adversity from the injuries and all this stuff. I got to see it up close and in person, and it just helped me become the type of person I am today."
Only 2.19 seconds
Two-point-one-nine. The number was repeated early and often after the Patriots' divisional playoff victory over the Chiefs. Brady needed only 2.19 seconds, on average, to unload the football against Kansas City, down from his regular-season average of 2.35.
"You said two seconds? Sometimes I only need, like, one," Miller said jokingly before the AFC championship game.
The jovial Miller never left. But veiled behind the pre-game wit and sarcasm was a reality. Miller's first step at the line and his ability to change directions on a dime, fall back into coverage or move up to pressure Brady in the pocket were quicker — and more powerful.
Twice in the third quarter, Miller sprinted around the edge of the Patriots' line before lunging toward Brady from behind, wrapping his long arms around the quarterback's waist to make his legs fold like origami beneath him.
The speed left offensive tackles watching Miller from behind. The agility forced game-changing turnovers. The power left Brady powerless. The combination proved almost unblockable, causing heads to shake and eyes to roll in disbelief.
"I think he's grown up a lot as a pro and with preparation — watching him get ready to play, study players," coach Gary Kubiak said. "I mean, Von hasn't missed a day of work. He's a leader. He loves to play. You all watch him practice, he has a blast out here. He's a dancer at practice and all of those things, but he's very professional in his approach. It's shown by the way he's played this year."
Von Miller, by the numbers:
Pro Bowl selections, making him one of three Broncos to earn at least that many in his first five seasons
Games needed to record 50 sacks, making him the third-fastest player in NFL history to do so
Seasons with at least five sacks, making him one of three Broncos to post that many in his first five seasons
Career sacks, putting him eighth in Broncos history
Quarterback hits this season, the most of the Broncos' 120 team total
Seasons with at least 10 sacks, making him one of three Broncos to do so over four seasons
Sacks vs. Patriots in AFC championship game, a Broncos single-game playoff record
Forced fumbles since 2011, tied for third-most in the NFL in that span
Draft pick by the Broncos in 2011, behind Carolina's Cam Newton
Nicki Jhabvala, The Denver Post