Jack Dempsey/Associated Press file photo
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press file photo
Almost any time Ray Lewis has lined up over the last 17 years, he has been the best linebacker – if not the best player – on the field.
If Lewis is in uniform Sunday when the Ravens play the Broncos that might not be the case.
With his rare combination of around-the-corner speed and nimble footwork that helps him beat offensive tackles, then dance over fallen quarterbacks, Denver’s Von Miller is changing the equation.
“I looked up to him when I was younger,” the 23-year-old Miller said of Lewis, the two-time defensive player of the year and a seven-time Associated Press All-Pro. “I look up to him now.”
While Lewis has spent the better part of the season on injured reserve with a torn triceps, Miller is staking out Lewis’ old territory as arguably the most disruptive linebacker in the game.
He was last year’s defensive rookie of the year and is on the short list to be named this year’s defensive player of the year. He heads into the 14th game of the season with 16 sacks, one short of Elvis Dumervil’s single-season franchise record. Miller has at least one sack in the last six games, along with six forced fumbles and a total of 24 tackles in opposing team’s backfields.
In other words, he is a player opposing offenses must account for in their game plans, and if that sounds familiar in Baltimore, it should. Teams have been planning around Lewis for years.
“They’re both extremely passionate, they both love to play, they both disrupt games. That’s about where the similarities end,” said Broncos’ defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who also coached Lewis during his early years in Baltimore. “Both of them are extremely different in how they impact games. Ray was probably the best inside linebacker to ever play. ... Von’s an amazing edge guy, a sack man, a guy who can disrupt. I’d like to have both of them, but I’m sure glad we have Von.”
Among the storylines following Miller this week are the three fines he’s received from the NFL this year – for hits on quarterbacks Matt Schaub of the Texans, Cam Newton of the Panthers and Josh Freeman of the Buccaneers.
Miller has appealed all the fines. He said the Schaub one has been upheld, but he hasn’t heard back on the other two. He said he isn’t trying to hurt anyone but won’t change the way he plays, either.
“It really doesn’t bother me too much, because I know that’s not the type of player I am,” Miller said. “It’s just the type of circumstances that happened that put me in those positions.”
Lewis is eligible to come off the injured reserve list this week, though Ravens coach John Harbaugh isn’t tipping his hand. Not knowing whether they’ll face him, a number of the Broncos said they have to be prepared for Lewis’ intensity if he is in uniform come Sunday.
“I’ve always kind of kidded that Ray is just as intense and passionate in the fourth quarter of the fourth preseason game as he is in the first quarter of a playoff game,” said Peyton Manning, who is 8-0 against Lewis and the Ravens, including playoffs, since 2002. “It’s real, and that’s pretty special and pretty unique.”
Miller, who likes to speak of his “fanatical effort,” shows all signs that he can match Lewis’ intensity and, like Lewis, that he can do it with his own signature flair. Lewis’ trademark is “The Squirrel” – the frenetic dance he does when he comes out of the tunnel during pregame introductions. Miller prefers to do his dancing after he sacks the quarterback.
The linebackers haven’t crossed paths often, but when they do, Miller tries to take advantage of Lewis’ expansive knowledge.
“I’ve had the opportunity, the blessing, just to be in his presence and talk to him and pick his mind a little bit, so that’s great,” Miller said.
Miller’s second-year surge has been as big a boost for the Broncos on defense as Manning’s arrival has been for the offense. It’s a big reason the Broncos are 10-3, with the AFC West title already secured and a chance at a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Denver has the fourth-ranked defense in yards allowed and has given up fewer points than anyone in the AFC. Denver has 39 sacks this season, tied for second in the NFL, and Miller’s presence accounts for more than just the 16 he’s recorded.
“In my eyes, I think he’s been, all around, maybe the defensive player of the year,” Dumervil said. “He’s been really working at all phases of the game. He’s a big part of what we’ve got accomplished so far, so it’s been great.”
Joe Mahoney/Associated Press file photo