ENGLEWOOD — Von Miller followed a strict diet. He worked out with a “no off days” mantra in the offseason. He added seven pounds of muscle. Yet this season, his ninth in the NFL, has produced proof that no one is immune from a slump.
Miller has 2.5 sacks, leaving him on pace for six. Only once has he had fewer, posting five in 2013 when he played nine games due to suspension and injury.
“I am rushing hard, trying to get there, getting pressure, getting close, but just not making that play. As tough as it is to see, 2.5 sacks, for my fans, you can only imagine how I feel about that, coming into the season with the highest expectations you can probably think of,” Miller said when I asked him Thursday if he was in a slump. “We still have that (expectation) now. You can’t really be stinkin’ thinkin’, staying in the dumpster.”
Owning 100.5 sacks and a career worthy of a gold jacket, Miller is in line for his worst full season. He can wreck a game in a blink, rendering useless the projections. However, the Broncos reach the halfway point on Sunday and their best player is struggling to gain traction in a new defense under first-year coach Vic Fangio.
There are no toll roads and shortcuts available, not with fellow outside linebacker Bradley Chubb lost for the season with a knee injury. Undrafted rookie Malik Reed is starting in his place. It leads to more attention on Von from opponents. For only the sixth time in 127 games, Miller failed to post a tackle in last week’s humbling 30-6 loss to the Chiefs.
Slumps, like a geometry class, take on many shapes. And timing is everything. None is worse than those that infect at the beginning or end of a season. Miller’s numbers reflect a sobering truth. He’s never had a launch like this. He averaged 6.3 sacks in his first seven games in his previous eight seasons, with a low of five in 2013. So, 2.5 doesn’t feel low, it is.
“You want to think positive,” said Miller, which is his nature. “I need to keep putting my best foot forward.”
There is no known cure for slumps. Some take luck to snap. Others require a freeing of the mind – as several professional athletes have said, “If you think, you stink.”
Miller’s slump has tangible reasons. There’s time he appears to be pressing, which can cause a player to be less productive. He is also playing more than ever – 91 percent of the snaps, a roughly 15 percent jump. And the Broncos have led only 35 percent of the time, leaving opponents to run the ball frequently. The Broncos rank 22nd in opponents' passing attempts and 23rd in sack percentage. Translation: there are fewer chances, and when missed, they sting.
Miller insisted to me Thursday that he was fine with his snap count.
“If I was playing 68 percent of the snaps and only had 2.5 sacks, it would be like, ‘We have to get Von back in the game. We need to get Von more shots at it.’ I have definitely taken all the shots I can take and left it all out there,” Miller said. “I have done as much as I can possibly do. And that’s what I’ve got. I am at peace, and I am just trying to play my best football. Around November is where I really turn it on and get spicy so I am hoping these next couple of games are good ones for me.”
It doesn’t help the Broncos continue losing. Miller began his career with five straight division titles, and a Super Bowl 50 MVP trophy, making him a player who transcended his sport. Denver sits at 2-5, staring at a third straight losing season for the first time since the drought of 1963-72. Still, Miller insisted they can turn it around even after the Broncos traded veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders on Tuesday.
“We’re going through a tough patch here. We just want to get it right,” Miller said. “We want people that want to get it right with us. We want people that want to be Broncos…We want people that want to get it right with us.”
Miller can’t go a day without being reminded of his numbers, the team’s record, and his lack of sacks. There is no magic pill. No pixie dust to sprinkle. All he can do is roll up his sleeves and get back to work.
“There’s not a lot I can say about it,” Miller said. “But I am going to stay positive and keep going.”
Broncos right tackle Ja'Wuan James remains rusty as he attempts to start Sunday for the first time since tearing his MCL on the 10th snap on opening night against Oakland. Fangio acknowledged that if James plays, they will use three tackles, meaning Garett Bolles could sit some for the first time. "It could happen that way, yeah," Fangio said. ... Broncos rookie quarterback Drew Lock is not practicing yet as he recovers from a thumb injury The thinking is this: The Broncos are slow playing the IR players, Lock among them. If the Broncos get to 4-5 in the next two weeks, they could activate someone like Theo Riddick instead of Lock. However, if the team continues on its current arc, Lock could be activated and possibly play some later in the season. ... As of now, nothing has changed with cornerback Chris Harris Jr.'s situation. Where the Broncos were motivated to move Sanders, they are not in the same spot with Harris. It would take a strong offer to unload the star, who will be responsible for guarding T.Y. Hilton this Sunday.