The men charged with blocking him all say the same thing.
You can keep one eye trained on No. 58 every snap of the game. You can walk in with a clever plan to neutralize him and carry it out. And still, he’ll improvise some unforeseen method to carve through space and wreck your offense.
For eight seasons, the best offensive minds in the NFL have dreamed up ways to impede Von Miller. And for eight seasons, the Denver Broncos linebacker has remained one step ahead of them. He’s finished with at least 10 sacks and made the Pro Bowl in each of his six full seasons, and he’s off to another roaring start with four sacks through two games in 2018.
On Sunday, he’ll arrive at M&T Bank Stadium to pose the most daunting threat imaginable to a Ravens offensive line that faltered in a 34-23 Week 2 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It’s like playing LeBron,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, who’s long admired Miller from afar. “You always have to account for him, because he’s that special of a player.”
The Baltimore line would be in for some painful self-analysis even if it weren’t facing one of the NFL’s most devastating defenders in Week 3. In their last game, the Ravens allowed four sacks and eight quarterback hits against a Cincinnati front seven led by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins. On the ground, they averaged just three yards per carry.
Pro Football Focus ranked the offensive line fifth-worst in the league after Week 2, and Marshal Yanda is the only individual blocker to grade in the scouting web site’s top 30 at either guard or tackle.
“They’re a good front, but we didn’t necessarily feel like we played up to par,” said right tackle James Hurst, who will likely bear much of the responsibility for blocking Miller. “No one particularly had a great game. But every guy came in on Friday and was critical of themselves, and we talked it out. Every guy knows we can be better.”
Yanda said the game went downhill so quickly in all phases that the Ravens were forced into an imbalanced attack that does not suit them.
“They’ve got a good front and when you put them in those situations where we’re going to pass the ball a ton, guys are going to get beat more,” he said. “But I was happy with the way we fought and we got back into that game. … I was just telling the young guys, it’s week to week in this business. That’s exactly what happens. You’re up 30 points in Week 1 and then you’re down 21. That’s the nature of the beast with this game, and you’ve just got to fight. No matter what the score is, you’ve got to go out and do your job at a high level.”
The performance in Cincinnati was a bitter twist for a group that seemed to be on the upswing given the sound health of Yanda and fellow starting guard Alex Lewis. Yanda, the six-time Pro Bowl selection, missed all but two games last season after he fractured his ankle, and Lewis did not play at all because of a shoulder injury.
With both in the lineup, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had ample time to throw in a 47-3 opening week slaughter against the Buffalo Bills. That changed immediately in Cincinnati, where he was sacked to end the first drive of the game.
“In two weeks, we’ve had two vastly different performances,” Hurst said.
Several of the team’s linemen have played below their expected levels, albeit in small sample sizes.
Left tackle Ronnie Stanley has practiced with a brace on his right arm after exiting the Bengals game in the fourth quarter. The Ravens hoped their 2016 first-round pick would be a Pro Bowl player by now, but he did not make a major leap in his second season and is off to a difficult start in his third, grading 45th among all tackles according to Pro Football Focus.
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Lewis, the starting left guard, has struggled as a run blocker in the first two games as he tries to prove he can remain healthy.
Nick Boyle, the team’s best blocking tight end in recent seasons, has played poorly in both pass and run protection.
Even the normally impregnable Yanda looked overmatched at times against Atkins, the player he’s said gives him more trouble than anyone else in the league.
The Ravens know that if they don’t shore up their blocking, Miller will expose any lingering weakness.
“He’s the straw that stirs the drink, no doubt — one of the very best in the league at what he does,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We will have to have him accounted for at all times, on every play. If we don’t do that, he’ll wreck the game. That’s job [No.] 1 on offense — that’s where it starts.”
Miller has been a physical marvel ever since the Broncos drafted him No. 2 overall out of Texas A&M in 2011 — as quick off the snap as anyone in the league and coordinated enough to leave blockers flat-footed with his spin move. He usually lines up on the left side of the Denver defense but moves around enough to keep an offense unsettled. And he’s just as adept against the run as he is at chasing quarterbacks.
The Ravens will likely hit Miller with variety, sliding a guard over to attack him, chipping at him with their tight ends and sometimes keeping a running back stationed as the final line of defense.
“Obviously, he’s just an unbelievable talent,” Hurst said. “He can beat you in so many ways. He’s a really shifty guy but with enough power to push you back into the quarterback. So you’ve just got to be technique-sound, watch as much film as you can and be as prepared as possible.”
Miller joked that he doesn’t necessarily want to be the object of every blocker’s eye. But he’s proud of the way he’s adapted, a testament to his intelligence and awareness as much as his quickness and power.
“If I can do it without having the whole 53-man roster’s attention, I would like to do it that way,” he said. “After you make a couple of plays in the National Football League, that’s just how it is. Once you get double-digit sacks one time — that’s just how it is. … You combat that, and you still have to find ways to be successful. I take pride in still being successful, yes sir.”
Miller’s greatness stands out all the more because the Broncos drafted another top edge defender, No. 5 overall pick Bradley Chubb, to attract blocking attention on the other side. Chubb hasn’t produced overwhelming statistics in his first two games, but he’s been rock solid against the pass and the run.
“He’s a very mature and smart football player,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “It’s been quiet, but he’s played good football. He’s pressuring the quarterback. Von beats him to all the sacks, so he has to get there quicker, I told him. But as far as being a pro, he is what we thought he was going to be: very, very, very tough, smart and a very good football player.”
With Miller and Chubb applying steady pressure, aided by outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray, the Broncos have dominated offenses on third down. But they’re not invulnerable, especially in the secondary, as Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr proved by completing 29 of 32 passes and averaging nine yards an attempt against them in Week 2.
“They have four legit pass rushers who are edge pass rushers, and they put them all out there at the same time, at times,” Harbaugh said. “All that being said, it comes back to ‘58.’ We have to know where he is. We’ll have a plan for him.”