It's a phrase that has been echoed continuously since the conclusion of the 2011 season: "If Team X drafts Player Y, they could use him like Von Miller." That's all well and good. The former Aggie, Von Miller has had tremendous success rushing the passer during his first two seasons in the NFL, accruing 30 sacks. Naturally most teams would like to replicate that success.
But how exactly does Denver utilize Von Miller?
Miller at 6'3" 237 lbs. (per NFL.com) does not have the stature of a traditional 4-3 Defensive End, yet the Broncos Defense, under John Fox, Dennis Allen, and Jack Del Rio, have essentially run a 4-3 Defense. Miller, with the size of an outside linebacker, saw 960 defensive snaps last season for Denver, 90% of the Broncos' total defensive snaps. Where does Miller fit into a traditional 4-3?
In essence, the Broncos use a blend of schematic flexibility and ingenuity to accomodate for Miller's size, and take advantage of his impressive athleticism. Looking specifically to the 2013 NFL Draft, there are multiple prospects who fit Miller's paradigm.
With minor changes, a team like the Panthers would have no problem fitting in an athletic pass rusher in the mold of Von Miller.
Like the Panthers, the Broncos run multiple fronts, often switching between the 4-3 and 3-4. The primary alignment for Miller is simply that of a DE in either a 4-3 or a 4-2-5 (the red triangle denotes Miller's location).
Miller takes the place of a standard defensive end, but instead of taking a three point stance like his fellow linemen, Miller uses a two point stance.
From this front, Miller is in position to put his athleticism to use; with the space between himself and the OT, Miller can choose from any number of pass rushing moves, or even drop into coverage. And with his lateral quickness, Miller is usually able to dictate hand combat.
This is Miller's most popular placement. Typically however, this front is used on passing downs, or against pass-heavy teams.
From this front Miller is the archetypal 3-4 OLB. The Broncos can run any number of zone blitzes, or stunts, especially with the capabilities of Derek Wolfe, Elvis Dumervil, and company; established pass rushers in their own rights.
The 3-4/3-3-5 is a versatile front for Denver: it is often brought out against running teams, or on third down and short; Denver can either blitz, or maintain gap discipline, while keeping their ILB's free.
Against a more run-centric team, or on an obvious run down, we might see the Broncos switch to a 4-3 Over/Under alignment with Miller as an OLB.
Here Miller is the 'Over LB' in the Denver 4-3 Over.
Again, Miller is the 'Over LB' in the Denver 4-3 Over.
Depending on the opponent, Denver will often opt for either the 3-4 or the 4-3 Over/Under alignment to defend the run. While a team looking for a pass rushing specialist won't necessarily require as much run support, it's nice to know that there are indeed available alternatives for pass rushers similar to Miller. Note here in these alignments that Miller is not asked to seal the edge against Offensive Tackles, but instead is free to crash down on plays ran towards the opposite sideline, or engage RB's/TE's behind the line of scrimmage.
There are a few more ancillary positions for Miller; not as common as those aforementioned, but still noteworthy.
Every now and then Miller will actually play from a three point stance as an inline DE.
Or even as a traditional 4-3 OLB.
Miller has enough instincts, and certainly the athleticism, to substitute as a Will Linebacker for a down or two. This alignment also presents the opportunity for a blitz through the B-gap (between the guard and tackle), in which Miller's speed and quickness could bedazzle a stout OG.
This goes for all alignments: In coverage, Miller is often free to 'green dog'. For example, if Miller is responsible in coverage for the RB, and the RB stays into block, Miller is free to blitz.
On this play, Denver's front three flushes Newton out of the pocket. As Newton rolls out towards the sideline, Miller accelerates and sacks Newton for a three yard loss.
Pass Rushing Alignments:
Obviously with a front seven as talented as Denver's DC Jack Del Rio has been able to dial up some unique and at times inundating blitzes (as Panthers fans saw firsthand).
With Dumervil, Miller, and Wolfe, the Broncos don't need a barrage of force to cause pressure, rather, only a few choice manipulations.
On most third down and long situations, Denver is able to cause significant pressure by only rushing three or four defenders.
Here we have a 1-3-7 front. Derek Wolfe is the nose tackle, while Dumervil and Miller rush the edges.
On passing downs, Denver likes to use a hybrid Wide-9 alignment; with Miller and Dumervil spread wide, and with one, or both, rushing from a two point stance. Del Rio likes to place the slender and supremely athletic pass rushers in space, where they may choose their approach against the isolated OT.
Again, a Wide-9 approach, but with double A-gap pressure from the ILB's. On this play, Denver brings the house, and forces Brady to throw the ball away.
So there's the nuts n' bolts of how the Broncos have used Von Miller. Primarily, he merely replaces a Defensive End, and depending on the opponent, Denver will then use him as an Outside Linebacker in their 3-4 or 4-3 Over/Under alignments.
Miller is an extraordinary pass rusher, and his success will likely open doors for less traditionally sized DE/OLB's.
As I mentioned above, with very little change, a team like the Panthers, which can operate out of both the 4-3 and the 3-4, could easily insert a player like Jarvis Jones (6'2" 245 lbs.), or Barkevious Mingo (6'4" 241 lbs.) on passing downs. This approach would be ideal for a team lacking pass rushing depth, again, like the Panthers, who could then opt to select the 'Best Player Available', while filling a fairly pressing need.