David Zalubowski/Associated Press file photo
The coach only needed to watch Von Miller for a practice or two before he realized what he was seeing.
As Miller tells it, defensive coordinator Joe Kines came up to him shortly after he arrived at Texas A&M and said, “You play like a guy I used to coach.”
That guy: Derrick Thomas.
This Sunday, like so many Sundays in years past, No. 58 will be roaming the field at Arrowhead Stadium, trying to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks, running backs, and offensive linemen. This No. 58 will be Miller, the Broncos linebacker, who became a big fan of Kansas City’s No. 58, Thomas, after Kines pointed out the similarities.
Miller says it’s no coincidence that he wears the same number as the late Chiefs Hall of Famer.
“I went and got his film, watched all his games, watched all his interviews,” Miller said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I just felt connected; I felt like I’d known him. I felt like the kind of things he did were the same kind of things I could do. I just became the biggest Derrick Thomas fan there was.”
Miller hangs Thomas’ rookie card in his locker. Meanwhile, the start to his career is strikingly like the one D.T. enjoyed back in 1989 and 1990.
Through his first 25 games, Thomas had 25 sacks. Through his first 25 games, Miller has 24½.
“I think they’re similar in terms of unique abilities to finish and get the quarterback to the ground,” Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “Rare ability, a combination of speed and power. It’s kind of fitting to mention that because we’re going to K.C. this week.”
Miller said watching Thomas play on video put a sharp focus on the kind of player he’d like to be, while watching the old Thomas interviews almost felt like he was hearing someone talk about his very own feelings.
“He said he felt like he was a running back on defense, and sometimes, I feel the same way – like I’m the running back and the offensive line is trying to stop me,” Miller said.
They’re not having much luck.
Miller, who was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for last week, has 13 sacks this season and has surpassed Elvis Dumervil and Rulon Jones for the most sacks by a Denver Bronco over his first two years. Sparked by their linebacker, the Broncos entered Week 12 with the league lead in sacks at 35.
In addition to kicking off his career as one of the league’s transcendent pass rushers, Miller is showing all the signs of becoming one of the NFL’s next truly colorful characters, as well: The black-rimmed glasses, the sack celebrations that keep people guessing and, at times, make him look like the man you’d most want to stay away from on the dance floor.
He says his eyesight is, indeed, terrible.
“Those aren’t a costume,” he says. “I’ve got 30 different pair, and I could wear a different one each day.”
The dancing – well – it’s a work in progress.
Things were so askew after two games, and three sacks, that Miller had choreographers from makers of the video game “Hip Hop Dance Experience” come to town to help him with something a little less frenetic. Now, usually after his first sack in any given game, he does his go-to dance – side-stepping, bending his arms at the elbow and bringing his hands up toward his shoulders. Every time he does it, the gamemakers give $1,000 to Miller’s charity, Von’s Vision, which helps underprivileged kids get eye care.
“I try to get one in a game, then, after that, whatever happens, happens,” he said. “I want guys thinking about what’s next. Hopefully, I’ll run out of stuff to do. That’d be great.”
One time he Tebowed. Against Carolina last month, he pretended to unzip his jersey to show off a Superman cape – a mocking celebration during a victory over the Panthers and Cam Newton, the only player chosen in front of him in the 2011 draft.
“We love his energy and all the dances,” Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. “I wouldn’t discourage him from doing anything that makes him play great on Sundays.”
Indeed, none of this would be newsworthy if Miller weren’t playing great and piling up the numbers. What Peyton Manning does for the Denver offense, Miller does for the Broncos defense. And yet, despite this success, he is not the hands-down best defensive player in football. Another member of the 2011 draft class, defensive lineman Aldon Smith of the 49ers, had 5½ sacks in Monday’s win over Chicago and now leads the league with 15. And second-year defensive end J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans added three sacks against Detroit on Thursday to bring his total up to 14½.
Neither, however, is quite the physical specimen Miller is. The product of DeSoto High School in Texas is 6-foot-3, 240 pounds and runs a 4.5-second 40.
“He has speed, and there’s this term in football that says speed kills,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel says. “And speed forces other players to do things that they don’t normally do.”
Miller played the last six games of last year with torn ligaments in his right thumb – an injury that forced him to wear a cast during the end of a season in which he piled up 11½ sacks. There were times when he got pulled off the field during running situations. His position coach, Richard Smith, bristled when asked about that, saying Miller was, indeed, an “every down guy” last year and has become an even better one this year.
“What I like about him is his focus, his attention in the meetings; on details, he’s getting much better,” Smith said. “He’s a much better first- and second-down player than he was a year ago.”
But he wasn’t always the uber-focused detail guy he is now.
During his sophomore year in 2008, Miller didn’t go to class as much as he have should and wasn’t a good practice player. Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman suspended him for the spring, and Miller considered transferring to Florida, which had been his second choice during the recruiting process.
“My dad told me not to do that,” Miller said. “He said I had to stick with it, play through it. It’s one of the best decisions I made. I came back, led the nation in sacks.”
He credits Sherman, the man he calls his second father, for teaching him about “honor, accountability, trust and working with teammates.”
Miller cried when the Broncos made him the second pick in the 2011 draft, overwhelmed as he saw everything he worked for come true.
Shortly afterward, he started setting goals.
One was to be the best rookie defender in the NFL. Last season, he beat out Smith to win the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Another was to somehow, someday, live up to Thomas’ legacy.
“But that’s pretty lofty, to try to play like Derrick Thomas,” Miller said. “I just try to play the best game I can possibly play. Sacks are good. Tackles are good. But playing in (February) in New Orleans, that’d be the best thing for us right now.”