The Tampa Bay Buccaneers face one of the strongest teams in the NFL tomorrow with arguably the best pass-rusher in the NFL. How can they counter this dominant group?
Von Miller was the second overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, behind quarterback Cam Newton. The Carolina Panthers decided to build their team around a quarterback, but the Broncos wanted to start their rebuild with arguably the best pass-rusher to come out in the draft since DeMarcus Ware came into the league. Miller's been an absolute terror these past two seasons, racking up a mind-boggling 25.5 sacks in 26 games. And he's doing all of this while playing a non-pass-rushing position on the majority of the snaps.
See, Von Miller doesn't play defensive end in Denver's base 4-3. Instead, he plays strongside linebacker -- a position occupied by Quincy Black (before his injury) and Adam Hayward in Tampa Bay. In that role, he has to defend the run and drop into coverage, rather than rush the passer. Now, dropping into coverage and especially defending the run are by no means weak points in Miller's game, but he has the biggest impact on games when he can rush the pass rusher. Quite frankly, Miller looks downright unstoppable when going against right tackles, and I have little faith that Tampa Bay's Demar Dotson, who has played well this year, can hold him off on passing downs.
And that's the key to stopping Miller: don't allow him to rush the passer. The Broncos occasionally allow him to rush from his linebacker position, but he's only really turned loose in nickel and dime packages, when he turns into a pass-rusher. In obvious passing situations, he will terrorize your passing game. So the Bucs will need to make sure that they minimize the amount of obvious passing situations, keeping him at outside linebacker rather than seeing him face off against Dotson.
The Bucs can do a number of things ensure this outcome. First, they must limit their use of spread personnel. That shouldn't be all that hard: the Bucs almost never line up with four wide receivers, but they do line up in three-wide sets around 40-50% of the time in most games. Simply lining up in base personnel more often will limit the Bucs on offense, but it will also allow them to keep Von Miller from having a huge impact on what is likely going to be a tight game.
Of course, there are going to be situations where Tampa Bay will line up in spread personnel, and the Broncos will respond with nickel personnel, putting Miller at defensive end. The Bucs are not going to line up in I formation with two tight ends on 3rd&15, after all, because that's a recipe for disaster. Which is why they need to limit the amount of snaps they take on obvious passing downs, even more so than usual. Of course, this is a goal of every offense in every game and it's a lot easier said than done. When you realize that the Broncos have one of the best run defenses in the league as well as one of the best pass defenses, it becomes clear how hard it can be to stay on schedule against this defense.
So, there's another way to limit Miller: intentionally line up in passing personnel, and then run straight at him. While Miller's a good run defender for a 4-3 outside linebacker, he lacks the weight of 4-3 defensive ends to hold up in run defense, and Doug Martin is certainly good enough to exploit that. He's also focused on getting upfield, and opposing teams can use that against him.
Finally, the Bucs can go after him in coverage. The Bucs have done that successfully by using Vincent Jackson, who is often lined up in the slot to exploit safeties and linebackers over the middle. Miller will have to drop back into coverage at times, and that's the weakest part of his game. Vincent Jackson is obviously a matchup nightmare for the linebacker, but veteran Dallas Clark should be able to do some damage against Miller, too.
If all else fails and they find themselves in passing situations with Von Miller at defensive end frequently, they have one last recourse: extra blockers. The Bucs have been focused on protection this season, keeping in extra blockers with regularity and asking the running backs to chip defensive ends to help their tackles. This has really helped pass protection, but it remains to be seen how effective they can be against Von Miller, especially so when Elvis Dumervil lurks on the other side of the line.
Much of Tampa Bay's success on offense will depend on their ability to limit Von Miller's impact. The chess match between the Bucs and Broncos on that side of the ball will be fascinating to watch, as the Bucs will try to limit Miller's impact, while the Broncos will move him around to get him involved in plays. That battle could very well determine the outcome of tomorrow's game.