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Is it time to worry about Von Miller’s lack of production?

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The Denver Broncos’ future Hall-of-Fame linebacker has zero sacks so far. Is it time to panic?

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NFL: Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders
Von has 0 sacks so far this season. Should Broncos Country be worried?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

One of the prevailing storylines coming out of box score scouting the past two weeks is how the Broncos are the only team in the league with zero sacks two weeks into the regular season. That’s right, zero.

This has been cause for alarm throughout Broncos Country. After all, the team supposedly employs one of the most dangerous pass rushing duos in the league in Bradley Chubb and Von Miller. What gives?

I watched every one of Von’s plays the last two weeks to try and get to the bottom of things. Here’s what I found:

1. Quarterbacks are getting the ball out quickly.

This bears out on the tape I watched. Carr mixed in plenty of screens and short throws to prevent Miller from taking over the game as he did in Week 2 of the 2018 season. Gruden also did a masterful job of attacking the Broncos’ coverage issues. It’s something Jeff Essary talked about last week, so if you want more details there it can be found here.

Short throws mixed with Isaac Yiadom’s worst game as a pro.

In week two:

If you look at Mitch Trubisky’s statline through 59:30 of last week’s contest, he had completed 57.7 percent of his passes for 95 yards. That’s the price Nagy was willing to pay to keep Von from taking over the game.

Hard to get home when Trubisky’s throwing screens and dumpoffs.

Now, there’s a legitimate reason to gripe about multiple aspects of that last completion to Allen Robinson. The first is how Mitch Trubisky was allowed to scramble out of harms way. Earlier this week Derek Wolfe spoke with Mile High Sports’ Eric Goodman and explained how there was a miscommunication between he and Von, which led to them getting in each others’ way.

The other big issue that comes to bite Denver on the last play is the clear coverage bust when Robinson has enough time to find space in the middle of the field.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

2. The Broncos edge depth is callow

One of my first GIF Horse film studies advocated for extending Shaquil Barrett, so it’s a bit validating to see him have so much success with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.

It’s also a bit of a bummer he isn’t doing that in orange and blue. That said, he was as good as gone when John Elway drafted Bradley Chubb fifth overall last year. Barrett took a one-year $5 million deal with Tampa Bay over interest from the Bengals. He wanted to start and have an opportunity to prove himself worth a real investment in 2020.

Shaq is headed for a career year.

After Shaq’s departure, Elway sent a pick to the 49ers to bring Dekoda Watson back into the fold. It was a move that earned him a lot of ire in Broncos Country, which seems validated since Watson didn’t make it out of camp and remains unsigned.

The Broncos also drafted Justin Hollins and made Malik Reed a priority UDFA signing. Both showed flashes of what’s to come in the preseason, but they’ve played a combined total of 12 defensive snaps so far this year.

That lack of faith by the coaching staff has led to Von and Chubb logging close to 95 percent of the defensive snaps. At some point Fangio will need to give the rookies some reps to keep the veterans fresh for the late game.

3. Miller’s sack total was always going to decline after 2018.

Last summer I stumbled upon a really interesting study by Tasteful Profanity. At the time I tucked it away because I thought surely Von could be an exception to the rule, but it’s time I share what he found.

The truth is using sacks to evaluate a player is a bit of a fool’s errand.

As far back as 2009, evidence suggests that sacks may be as dependent on the quarterback as either the offensive or defensive lines.

Instead of sacks, pressures are a far better way to measure a pass rushers’ productivity. According to Pro Football Focus, pressures are more than twice as stable year-to-year as sacks among players who rush the passer on at least 150 snaps per season.

He went on to share a formula he created for “expected sacks” and how players who under-performed or over-performed one year was likely to come back toward the median the next.

Guess who over-performed?

Von Miller.

4. The interior needs to improve.

One thing did strike me as concerning when I was looking at Von’s tape against the Bears. When Nagy devoted extra attention or double teams to slowing Miller, the interior rushers weren’t winning their individual battles.

If Miller draws a double, others need to capitalize.

On the play above DeMarcus Walker gets close late in the down, but Trubisky is already getting rid of the ball. Chicago did this a few times, keeping extra players in or using a bunch set on the right side of the line to slow Miller. When opponents do this it leaves Shelby Harris, Derek Wolfe and the other members of the Broncos’ pass rush with one opponent to beat.

They have to do so, but it’s not this simple. As Nick Kendell of Mile High Huddle points out here:

5 problems, 5 solutions to empower the Broncos’ pass rush - Mile High Huddle

Wolfe had a fantastic game against the Bears, controlling blockers and wrecking gaps, but he isn’t much of a pass rusher anymore. Harris, who has flashed pass-rush ability, seems to be stymied by playing nose in the two-gapping scheme and is miscast as such. He appears to be much better as a sub-package 1-tech or 3-tech, as opposed to the role he is playing now. Gotsis, while flashing ability, is much more of a long, strong run stopper as well. Walker, while playing better this year, has been such a liability to date and a historic ‘cleanup sack artist’ that the initial pressure ability just isn’t something to expect from him.

To help improve the interior pass rush, Kendell proposes more stunts with the line. He goes on to wonder why Fangio hasn’t used it more. My best guess at this is the poor linebacker play at the second level from Corey Nelson and Josey Jewell. If that’s the case, Todd Davis’ return should help here.

5. It’s not time for panic, yet.

The defense looked so good in the limited glimpses we got in the preseason that I bought the hype and underestimated the time it’d take for the Broncos’ players to grow into Fangio’s scheme. It’s hard to preach patience when Denver’s 0-2, but the pass rush will look a lot better when there’s less coverage busts on the back-end.

Another thing that may help the Broncos pass rush get home is its opponents. As tough as the 2019 schedule is, Denver’s going to face off against quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, and Marcus Mariota. All three of them are a bit notorious for hanging in the pocket and taking extra hits.

So I wouldn’t panic. Yet.

Your Broncos links

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NFL Draft Links

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Either way, Alabama had just lost a Top-10 caliber talent, a player so disciplined, hard-working, and intelligent that he was dubbed “Little Saban” during his final season at Alabama. Even for a factory like the Crimson Tide, Fitzpatrick was going to be difficult to replace. They did it anyway. And they did it with Xavier McKinney.

A look ahead to the Packers

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A look around the rest of the AFC West

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”I think right now it’s important to anchor me down because I’m learning an entirely new system,” Fitzpatrick said, per the Associated Press. “Once I learn the system more, I’ll be able to move around a little bit. It’s part of my game. It’s one of the reasons they wanted me around.”

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