USA TODAY Sports Weekly
MILLER POISED TO SEIZE THE SPOTLIGHT
Broncos linebacker’s personality is evident on and off the field
As he put on a black puffy coat after the Denver Broncos’ final practice in Colorado before Super Bowl 50, Von Miller said the words that strike fear into football reporters across the country.
“Maybe I’ll say, ‘I’m just here so I won’t get fined,’ ” said Miller, channeling tight-lipped Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch during the lead-up to Super Bowl XLIX.
Miller tried to keep a straight face but soon was cracking up — that booming, gravelly laugh that might be the most common sound on the defensive side of the Broncos locker room.
An effervescent outside linebacker, Miller will be the Super Bowl’s antithesis of Lynch, whose curt media sessions provided a sideshow the last two years.
The Carolina Panthers might have their share of big personalities, from quarterback Cam Newton to cornerback Josh Norman, but Miller is poised to be the breakout star of the week.
He has been shining on the field for five seasons as a two-time all-pro with 60 career sacks and is rapidly becoming one of the Broncos’ most beloved players because of his ferocious pass rush and infectious personality.
But unlike some of the other top players from Miller’s 2011 draft class — namely No. 1 pick Newton and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt — he has yet to parlay that success into mainstream off-the-field stardom. And Miller is one of only two non-quarterbacks from the top 11 picks in that class who has yet to receive a contract extension.
A memorable week leading up to the Super Bowl — and a big game Sunday against the Panthers — could change all that.
“I need to get me some chicken commercials. ‘Happy Chickens,’ ” Miller said with a laugh as he described his dream commercial chicken farm, one complete with live webcams, so everyone could see that his poultry were raised humanely, and a sound system. “Pump in a little Sade,” he said. Surely slow jams weren’t on the curriculum of Miller’s poultry science courses at Texas A&M. But if his approach to raising poultry is anywhere near his formula for bagging quarterbacks, it’s hard to argue with his methodology.
Miller is the best player on the NFL’s best defense because of his speed, flexibility and increasingly complex arsenal of moves. Paired with veteran pass rusher DeMarcus Ware in coordinator Wade Phillips’ aggressive defense, Miller dipped, spun and bull-rushed his way to 11 of the Broncos’ league-high 52 sacks.
His performance in the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots showed why he could soon earn one of the richest defensive contracts in the NFL. He sacked Tom Brady 21⁄ times, racked up seven tackles and dropped back to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski before intercepting a pass by Brady.
“They try to put me in a passrush category, but I try to have A-plus on everything I do — whether it’s pass coverage, offthe-field stuff, working with rookies — not just pass rush. And I think that’s what makes me different,” Miller told USA TODAY Sports. “On third downs, I might be rushing, but I might be in coverage, too. It’s a legitimate 50-50 chance I’ll be doing either one.”
The Miller the world will see this week is far different from the version the Broncos saw two years ago, when a six-game drugrelated suspension and torn anterior cruciate ligament threatened to derail his promising career.
“I wouldn’t even call it low. It was just rough. If it had been a low point, I would have just been like, (screw) it, I’m done,” Miller said.
But he served out his suspension, leaning on his parents — who temporarily moved in with him — and veteran teammates such as former Broncos Champ Bailey and Terrance Knighton. Miller was determined to reclaim or exceed the form that helped him notch 30 sacks in his first two seasons. It didn’t happen immediately, in part because his experiment of adding more than 15 pounds of muscle, mostly to his upper body, failed.
He tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Week 15 of the 2013 season, which he finished with five sacks in nine games before watching his team lose to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The off-the-field concerns and injury questions feel like they happened ages ago. Miller, while still a goofball, has matured. He’s out of the NFL’s drug program thanks to two years of clean tests. And while he leans on Ware for guidance, he has become a locker room leader because of his practice habits. Miller missed one practice all season when he had a bad reaction to movie theater mozzarella sticks in January.
“He had a tremendous amount of support — not just from us, but from his mom and dad. His agent’s done a tremendous job getting him in the right situation and around the right people,” Broncos general manager John Elway said. “But the bottom line is, you can have all the support and everything you could want, (but) unless you make your mind up that’s what you want to do, it’ll never happen.
“Really, all the credit goes to Von, because he made his mind up what he wanted to be. ... It’s been a tremendous maturation process for him, and we’re thrilled that he’s come through.”