ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Reality clobbered the Broncos over the head Wednesday.
Von Miller is out indefinitely, and likely for the entire season, after dislocating a tendon in his ankle during the last play of Tuesday's practice. It was a non-contact injury.
As one teammate told Denver7, "It's just crazy."
Miller will get multiple medical opinions before deciding whether and when to have surgery, which seems inevitable at this point. Coach Vic Fangio would not rule out Miller's return, stressing that his injury should not produce longterm side effects.
It feels unfair, hard to stomach. Miller caught COVID-19, forcing reflection and raw self-awareness. He dedicated himself to getting bigger and stronger — his training became the stuff of legend on Twitter as he added muscle — and becoming a better leader. It manifested in a terrific training camp, where he dominated daily, led individual drills and was more demonstrative with teammates.
"I’m sad that he’s not going to get the season that he worked for, because it was going to be fun to watch," Fangio said. "He was going to have a hell of a season. I talked to the team. We acknowledged the loss. We can still go out and play winning football, and we talked about that today. We’ll move forward."
Now comes the hard part for the Broncos. Or the hardest part. Trying to end a four-year playoff drought without their best player.
With Miller's loss siphoning optimism, the Broncos' ability to survive and remain a contender centers on two factors: Fangio scheming up his defense to excel without Miller, and Drew Lock microwaving his development to lead an offense capable of scoring 23 points on a regular basis.
The pressure falls initially in Fangio's lap. He runs the Broncos defense. He has coached on this side of the ball for four decades, earning the nickname "The Professor" for his brilliant mind and game plans. Those attributes must be on full display beginning with Monday night's season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
SuperBookSports tags the over-under at 41 points, seeing it as a pick'em game. There's no way to overstate the importance of the defense, a group that held eight of its final 12 opponents to 20 points or less. How do the Broncos replace Miller?
It creates playing time for second-year pro Malik Reed and veteran Jeremiah Attaochu. Reed conjures comparisons to Shaq Barrett in his second season. Barrett jumped from the practice squad to a key contributor. Reed added six pounds of muscle, improved his conditioning by staying in Denver to train and produced a solid training camp.
"I have confidence in them that they’ll be able to play to their abilities. Neither one of them is Von Miller," Fangio said.
Reed figures to start in Miller's absence. Reed finished with two sacks last year in 15 games, including eight starts. That no longer is good enough. He aims for a big bump in year two of Fangio's defense.
“Last year I feel like I was trying to learn it on the fly each and every week. Against different teams, we did different things in our defense. Having the understanding of NFL football which is different from college football, I feel like that’s where I took some of the biggest steps in just understanding what we need to do in the defense and how to be aggressive in our defense as well," Reed said last week. "I feel like that’s a big step that I’ve taken this year personally."
Attaouchu was signed on Oct. 1 last season after the Broncos lost Bradley Chubb to a torn ACL. He surprised with his play and steady upward climb, notching 3.5 sacks in 12 games with five starts.
"There's no replacing Von. We can't put all the pressure on them. The onus is on the team in general," safety Justin Simmons said. "It's going to take a whole team effort, myself, Kareem [Jackson], Jurrell [Casey], A.J. [Bouye], Bryce [Callahan], to put Malik [Reed] and Jerry [Attaochu] in position to make more plays."
A healthy Chubb would soothe some of the pain from Miller's absence. However, the Broncos cannot rush his return because of Miller.
Chubb is 11 months removed from knee surgery, and developed soreness 11 days ago. He is expected to go against the Titans, but while being on a play count. As the season progresses, Chubb could emerge as a star, but patience will be required. Fangio told me he talked with Chubb about not forcing his comeback, and that they will monitor him closely in practice.
Adding a veteran to the group — Isaiah Irving, Clay Matthews, Cameron Wake, Terrell Suggs, Ziggy Ansah — remains a possibility. The Broncos cut Justin Hollins last week and rookie Derrek Tuszka, on the practice squad, needs to add more strength.
In the end, they Broncos need five fingers working as a fist.
"The whole team must pick up the void. It's everybody when you lose a player of that caliber, on the field and off the field," Fangio said. "We have a good enough team to overcome it."
The Broncos produced 40 sacks last season, tied for 17th. They need better, and cannot afford to start the season without sacks or takeaways for the first three games as they did a year ago. Takeaways, however, are a byproduct of holding leads. It forces the opposition to pass more and take more chances.
Enter Lock. In his first full season as a starter, the ask of him became greater. He finished camp with arguably his three best practices. He never lost confidence as he struggled -- part of the reason his teammates gravitate towards him -- and believes he can pick up where he left off after winning four of his five starts a year ago.
"I am just eager to get out there again, take that first snap," Lock said. "Those last few days before the scrimmage, it kind of clicked. I felt more confident."
While Lock is a terrific talent, let's not dismiss the importance of running the ball. It eats clock, sustains drives, eases the burden on Lock and keeps the defense fresh.
Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon are ready for the challenge. The Broncos ranked 20th in rushing last season at 103.9 yards per game. That's why, in part, they signed Gordon. Could Lindsay be the opener and closer with Gordon grinding out tough yards and working as a receiver out of the backfield in between? How those two play, especially early, could go a long way in determining how the Broncos survive without Miller, their most accomplished player.
"It's a punch in the gut for everybody. I am disappointed for him. I talked to Von a bunch in the offseason, and he was ready to go. It definitely hurts our team," said Lock, who said Miller approaching him early as rookie made him comfortable, something he reciprocated with rookies this season. "Life goes on. It's on all of us. We can't just bring our A game. We have to bring our A-plus game. Take it one step further. Without Von, it makes it a little more evident. I am more upset for Von, not sorry for us. We are all going to have to make plays and go get it."