Despite standing 6'3" and weighing 237 pounds, Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller can get so low when turning the corner to rush the passer that you'd expect grass stains on the shoulders of his jersey. No big deal, right? Lots of players are flexible. But try dipping your inside shoulder nearly to the ground while continuing to move at full speed with a 315-pound offensive tackle jamming you into the turf. Fellow Denver 'backer Wesley Woodyard attempted the technique while working out with Miller. The experience remains fresh in his mind. "I heard some bones clicking and some muscles grinding," Woodyard says. "It's a God-given ability Von has."
Miller's freakishness on the football field is all the more remarkable given that in other venues he displays the coordination of a newborn colt. Last summer, in preparation for his second NFL season, Miller trained at Velocity Sports Performance in Irvine, Calif., with boyhood friend Tony Jerod-Eddie, a 49ers defensive lineman. After their workout sessions the two would wind down by shooting hoops, and an unknowing observer would have been hard-pressed to identify Miller as an athlete, let alone one of the NFL's rising stars. "He was that awful," Jerod-Eddie says. Miller's dribble? Imagine someone yo-yoing for the first time. Jump shot? "He'd get on the free throw line by himself, no distractions, and if he took 20 jumpers, he might hit one—and he's going to bank that off the backboard," says Jerod-Eddie. "He has not one basketball bone in his body."
Yet transform the ball from round to oblong, and Miller becomes Superman—fast enough to beat tackles around the edge, strong enough to knock 300-pound linemen off balance with a one-arm jab and smart enough to know he'll never fulfill his potential if he relies solely on pass-rushing talent. "I'm a true linebacker. I believe that in my heart," says Miller, 23. "I want to be a dominant run stopper. I want guys to say when they see 58, they've got to go to the other side. I'm going to be on top of the play-action stuff; I'm going to be on top of my coverages. Then when it's a definite pass situation, I switch into pass-rush mode."
Peyton Manning's arrival may be the most obvious reason why Denver is the top seed in the AFC and favored to reach Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. But just as significant has been Miller's ongoing maturation from one-trick pony to complete linebacker. After a debut season in which he had 11½ sacks and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year, Miller boosted his sack total to 18½ in 2012, third most in the league. He also forced six fumbles, tied with defensive end Elvis Dumervil for the team high, and got his first NFL interception, which he ran back for a TD. "I pulled him to the side last year and said, 'If you can play off-the-ball linebacker as well as you rush the passer, within three years you'll be the best defensive player in the league, hands-down,' " says veteran Denver linebacker D.J. Williams. "This year he applied himself to being a true linebacker. He's definitely on his way to being the hands-down guy."
That's high praise considering Miller's 2011 draft class included Texans end J.J. Watt, the front-runner to win Defensive Player of the Year, and 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, who has 33½ sacks over his first two seasons, 3½ more than Miller. But Miller, drafted ahead of both of them at No. 2, is determined to turn his promise into production. "It's not the amount of success you've had," says Miller, "it's the respect you get in the locker room as a leader, as The Guy. The organization brought me in to be that guy, and I feel like I've taken steps in that direction. But I still have a long way to go."
Even his father has noticed a difference. While others praised his son's accomplishments last season, Von Sr. shook his head. "Everything he's done to this point has been about ability," says Von Sr., who owns a battery and backup power supply company in DeSoto, Texas. "It hasn't been about, O.K., let me go out there and work my butt off and try to be the best at what I do. It's, Let me go do what I have fun doing. Now his attitude is changing. He's becoming a man, and he's fully understanding the job he's undertaken."
Before the NFL, Miller hadn't had to step outside his comfort zone since his youth days in DeSoto, when his coach, Derrick Lusk, put him at defensive end as an eight-year-old and told him to tackle the running back. Von was the most dominant player on the field, even when he made mistakes—like when he took Lusk literally and, after penetrating the backfield, stood waiting for the QB to hand off the football before tackling the running back. "I had to tell him, Whoever has the ball, that's who you tackle," Lusk says. "From that point on, that's what he did."
Von Sr. and his wife, Gloria, raised their children with a firm hand and a soft heart, instilling the values they learned growing up in East Texas—hard work, respect, accountability, honoring one's commitments. In high school Miller wanted to transfer because the coach wouldn't let him play running back or receiver. His dad's response: Finish what you start. In college Von wanted to leave Texas A&M during his freshman year, after he was suspended for the spring game for skipping classes and study halls. He loaded up his pickup and had begun the drive back to DeSoto when his cellphone rang. It was his father, who told him to turn around. Miller ended up an All-America for the Aggies and the 2010 Butkus Award winner.
Now Miller works to exceed the expectations that come with being the highest Broncos pick in a half century. As a rookie he joined a defense that had allowed the most points and yards in the league the previous season, with the fewest sacks and forced turnovers. Miller instantly upgraded the unit: This year the Broncos tied for the league lead in sacks, with 52, and were second only to the Steelers in total defense, the highest ranking ever for a Denver D.
Though Miller is on his second coordinator in two years—Jack Del Rio took over when Dennis Allen left to become the Raiders' coach—his understanding of the game and Denver's 4--3 scheme is more advanced this season. He's more attentive to his assignments, more consistent in coverage and stronger against the run. As a rookie he was hesitant at times, in part because the lockout limited his postdraft contact with coaches and the experience he needed to absorb a new role. Playing outside linebacker in a 3--4 scheme at College Station, he was taught that the ends set the edge against the run. But as a strongside 'backer in a 4--3 system, he has to play over the tight end and serve as an anchor against the run.