ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos began the season without strongside linebacker Von Miller, and they’ll end it without him, too.
Miller is done for the year after tests Monday revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, which he injured in the first quarter of Denver’s 37-13 win at Houston over the weekend.
“It’s definitely going to be a blow,” executive vice president John Elway said on his weekly podcast on the team’s website. “But I think that we’ve done a good job of handling adversity throughout the year. This is another bump in the road for us.”
The Broncos (12-3) have hit so many potholes this season it’s a wonder they’re not broken down on the side of the Super Bowl Expressway.
Instead, they can wrap up the AFC’s top seed with a win at Oakland (4-11) on Sunday.
Miller’s injury ended a rough third season for the Broncos star, which began with a six-game drug suspension and included just five sacks and 33 tackles in 10 games.
With 30 sacks in his first two NFL seasons, Miller won the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2011 and was runner-up for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honor last season. He set a team record in 2012 with 18½ sacks to go with 28 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles.
In the offseason, Elway called Miller the best football player on the planet. But Miller ran afoul of the NFL’s drug program, was suspended for the first month and a half of the season and never really returned to form in 2013.
Miller worked out at the team’s Dove Valley complex during his banishment, and he bulked up to 270 pounds — 24 pounds more than when he was selected second overall in the 2011 draft out of Texas A&M.
Miller was rusty upon his return. Although his bulkier body enhanced his bull rush, it seemed to sap some of his athleticism that made him such a special pass rusher. He had moments where he’d flash his old form, and last week he spoke about peaking for the playoffs.
Although the Broncos went 6-0 during his suspension, that was before they also lost safety Rahim Moore (leg) and linemen Kevin Vickerson (hip) and Derek Wolfe (illness).
The Broncos find themselves once again scrambling to make up for the loss of a dynamic playmaker teams had to account for even though he wasn’t having his typically disruptive season.
“It’s like losing a guy like Ryan Clady earlier in the season or (wide receiver Wes) Welker,” coach John Fox said via a teleconference with reporters after being sent home Monday because of the flu. “Any time you take away those caliber of players, it’s a blow.”
The Broncos will look to replace Miller on the roster with another pass-rusher.
Miller was rushing Matt Schaub when he was blocked cleanly by tight end Ryan Griffin. His right knee buckled and he crumpled to the ground. Miller walked off the field and into the locker room with a team doctor and trainer.
Because he didn’t need to be carted off, there was hope his injury wasn’t season-ending and that he might return in the playoffs.
“It wasn’t anything that was a late hit. It wasn’t even a hit,” Elway said. “It was just sometimes you tear those ACLs. It’s unfortunately a fact of where you step and when you get hit at the same time and that was really what happened to Von. It was really just the ACL, so it should make for a quick recovery.”
The best case is that he’s back for training camp after surgery sometime next month. ACL recoveries generally take six to nine months.
The Broncos will once again rely on Nate Irving at strongside linebacker in the base defense and on Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and newcomer Jeremy Mincey on passing downs — along with dialing up creative blitzes.
“He’s a special player, no question, one of the best guys I’ve seen on the edge in my career,” Broncos tight end Julius Thomas said. “What he’s able to do on the field, what he can bring, it will be missed, but most importantly we wish him the best, we wish him a fast recovery.
“We’re going to be there for him and we know he’ll be there rooting us on.”