Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller has a big game this week. This is only his second season in the league, and already big games have become commonplace for the 2011 defensive rookie of the year. He was part of a stout defense that helped Denver get to the playoffs last year, upsetting the Steelers before being dispatched by the Patriots.
This week Miller and the Broncos are heading back to New England. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who have controlled the fate of the AFC for nearly a decade, meet again this Sunday. Miller and his defense are only supporting characters in this one, but they need a big performance to stop a Patriots team capable of posting 40 points with minimal effort.
"We think we're a pretty good team," Miller said in an interview with SB Nation this week. "We feel confident that we can play the kind of Denver Broncos football that we're capable of playing. I think it'll be a great game this weekend."
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The Broncos are coming off a one-sided thrashing of the Raiders in Week 4, a good confidence-building game after losing a pair in the preceding weeks to the still-undefeated Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans. Winning on the road against a team like the Patriots would put Miller's team in upper echelon of the league's teams, put them one game above .500 and keep them close to the Chargers in the AFC West race.
But first they have to beat the Patriots.
"We're sitting at 2-2 right now," Miller said. "I think everybody would like to be undefeated at this point in the season, but if we can take it one day at a time, one play at a time we can be the team that we want to be."
The easygoing Texas A&M product changes his tone when talking about the Broncos' record. It makes it quite clear that 2-2, even at this early point in the season, is not the desired result. It definitely was not the performance Miller and teammates felt they were capable of against a pair of high profile opponents.
In Week 2, Manning threw three interceptions in the first quarter, spotting the Falcons 10 points on the resulting turnovers. The Broncos lost 27-21.
In Week 3, the Broncos scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough to chip away at a sizable Houston lead. The Texans won 31-25.
"I think we just need to be more consistent," the young linebacker explained. "In those two losses we had we dug ourselves some pretty deep holes. In the National Football League, it's extremely hard to get out of those holes. When you spot another team 21 points, it's going to be hard to win those games, especially when you're going against great opponents.
"We have to be more consistent, not shoot ourselves in the foot," he continued. "We had a chance in both those games, a chance to win them."
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The Patriots bring their own 2-2 record into this week's game. Both losses came against two of the league's better defenses, the Cardinals and the Ravens. Arizona sacked Brady four times and picked him off once on the way to a two-point win thanks to a last-minute missed field goal. Baltimore won a bare-knuckle boxing match, sacking Brady twice.
Manning will get all the headlines for the Broncos in this game, win or lose. The last time he and Brady faced each other, in 2010, Manning's defense put the work squarely on his shoulders, and the Colts lost. To win this week, Miller and his teammates on that side of the ball need a solid outing.
"We have some new additions with Mike Adams and Tracy Porter," Miller said. "We're pretty much the same defense we were before; it's just about shedding blocks and making tackles."
Miller, the new additions, and the rest of the defense are holding opponents to an average of 20.8 points per game, which puts them among the 10 best defenses in average points allowed. According to Football Outsiders, the Broncos have a -15.3 percent DVOA, the seventh-best in the league.
As for Miller himself, he has three sacks this season, which puts him on pace to finish the season with 12 sacks, one less than the 13 he recorded last year. He also has seven quarterback hits and 13 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, which puts him on pace for 28 hits and 52 hurries, well ahead of where he was last season.
In other words, Miller is having no problems getting to the quarterback.
"Third downs are pretty much the same; it's all about getting to the quarterback," Miller said of his most notable task. "On first and second downs, it's playing with the defense, playing a traditional outside linebacker role in a 4-3 system. Coverage is different, but I believe that if I keep working at it, I can get it."
Getting to Tom Brady will be a necessary one for the Broncos to win this week, but Miller still sees it as an added bonus.
"I'm hoping on it," Miller replied when asked if he planned to bring down Brady. "A win would be better than a sack though. I'm hoping more for a win."
He was still undecided about a special sack dance for the Patriots quarterback.
The importance of this week's game is not lost on Miller and his teammates. Even without their quarterback's history and an obsessive media, they understand who they are playing and what they have to this week and throughout the rest of the season.
"It's a bit more urgent, more businesslike," he said of this year's Broncos team. "We've got a future Hall of Famer playing on offense and defense, it's a little more urgent now for this Broncos organization."
More urgency also means the second-year linebacker is focusing on bigger goals.
"I don't really think about the past accolades," Miller said. "I'm trying to get more. Winning the defensive rookie of the year award was great, but I want to win a Super Bowl just like everybody else on our team. We're just taking it one day at a time. And if we do that, we believe we can get it done."
Taking it one day at a time means focusing on beat the Patriots this Sunday. Asked for a prediction, Miller laughed uncomfortably.
"I don't want to say we can beat the Patriots or anything," Miller said, "but if we can play the type of football that we're capable of playing, then it will be alright this coming weekend."