ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There’s only one team that Von Miller hasn’t faced in his NFL career.
That will change when the Denver Broncos come to Orchard Park on Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN). For the first time, Miller will go up against the team that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2011. The pass-rusher spent 10 1/2 seasons in Denver, where he holds the all-time team sack record (110.5) and was named Super Bowl 50 MVP.
Buffalo, sitting at 5-4 after losing three of the last five games, needs a win on Monday to keep pace in a competitive AFC. The Bills have the second-hardest schedule in the NFL over the next two months and could use the Von Miller who was one of the best closers in the business, known for making big plays in big moments.
But Miller is still on his journey back from major right ACL surgery following an injury he suffered against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving last year. He has now played five games after missing four on the physically unable to perform list to start the season.
His recovery is continuing on the field, something the Bills also saw at the end of last season when cornerback Tre’Davious White worked his way back from a torn left ACL.
Miller’s on-field impact thus far has been minimal. He has recorded one tackle, zero sacks and five pressures.
“Definitely wanna play better this game. I felt better last game, but obviously it’s still some things that I’m trying to work through,” Miller said. “But I felt great last game. [The Bengals game] was the first game where I really wasn’t thinking about my knee or this or that. It was just football.”
Miller, part of the Bills defensive line rotation, has not played more than 26 snaps in a game. He had a low of six snaps in the loss to the New England Patriots in Week 7.
Now he has gone seven straight games without a sack dating back to last season, tied for the longest drought of his career (2021).
“The rushes are becoming more and more physical. The angles are a lot tighter,” assistant head coach and defensive line coach Eric Washington said on Miller’s progress. “… I’m starting to see him put his rush combinations together. The coordination. When you use his stab. When to work the top shoulder of the offensive tackle. When to counter … I’m seeing more and more of those things. They’re faster, they’re quicker, and it’s just a matter of time.”
The timing of Miller’s return in Week 5 invites questions. Miller missed all of the offseason programs and training camp with the injury. Then he participated in one week of practice where he was limited all three days before being put out on the field to play the Jacksonville Jaguars on a turf field in London that Bills players noted was not good to play on.
“There’s no perfect solution probably because you’d love to send him through training camp. And there’s only so many padded practices that you can do,” general manager Brandon Beane said. “… Some of the game stuff is what he needs as part of the comeback. We could have kept him out for two or three more weeks, had him practice more. But those game reps, he’s probably gaining more from those than he would off of practice where contact is limited.”
Whatever the expectations were for a 34-year-old pass-rusher coming off major ACL injury, the focus has been on Miller being healthy and at his best when the team needs him most late in the season. But with so many injuries along the defense — including three starters on IR — the Bills need all the help they can get now to increase pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Miller signed a six-year, $120 million contract in 2022 to be the impact pass-rusher the defense had been missing. In his first year with the team, Miller finished tied for the team lead in sacks (eight) with Greg Rousseau and led the team with 38 pressures in 11 games. He also finished with the best pass rush win rate (23.6%) and pressure percentage (14.5%) on the roster.
Miller’s recovery time target after surgery in early December was about nine months.
“You are using some tissue [to repair the knee] that has to — kind of what we call ‘ligament ties’ — it becomes stronger with time,” said Dr. James Tibone, co-director of sports medicine and orthopaedic specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “It becomes more like an ACL over time and if you look at it in basic science, it’s like 18 to 24 months. But that, obviously [professional athletes are] not out for that long, so the earliest someone usually comes back is nine months and they’re not usually performing very well. It’s 12 months is probably the norm when they start to come back.”
Tibone said that coming back before nine months leads to a higher re-injury rate.
Miller has worn a right knee brace during games, something he said in October would be reduced to a smaller brace after the Broncos game. The hope is that by the end of the season or the playoffs, he won’t need one at all.
This is not Miller’s first time dealing with a major ACL injury. In 2013 with Broncos, he tore his right ACL but returned for the start of the 2014 season. Miller said that while he thought the recoveries would be the same, “it’s just different all the way around.” But his mindset on each of his injuries is the same.
“I would love to take these huge leaps and bounds each and every week, but reality is I’m just getting a little bit better each and every week,” Miller said. “I’m grateful for that and I can accept that. This is Year 13 for me, and I just know how it goes. Like, I know I still can play. I know I can still recapture some of the things that I did in the past and the type of player that I was, I know I can still be that and I feel like that’s what’s driving me.”
Miller said he would love to go out on the field and play like the Miller of Super Bowl 50, but that’s not how bodies work.
“No matter how I try to trick myself, no matter what games I play with my mind, no matter where I’m at mentally, the body is just totally different,” he said. “So, I can accept the type of progress that I’ve made.”