"Von was exciting to coach and yet sometimes frustrating because he didn't always do it exactly like you'd want it to be done," says Allen. "He was hurt by the lack of an off-season, so we tried to simplify things for him and give him an opportunity to do the thing he did well, which was rush the passer. We always tried to get Von matched up on one of the lesser players on the offensive line. Sometimes we'd put him inside on the guard, and other times we'd stand him up and let him use his athleticism. He's a fun chess piece to deal with."
On Miller's torso is a tattoo that says RELENTLESS, both a description of his playing style and an exhortation to himself to keep it up. After being named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for November on the strength of his conference-best eight sacks and 10 tackles for loss, he was summoned to linebackers coach Richard Smith's office. Smith is straight old school, the quintessential drill sergeant, so the purpose wasn't to pat his young star on the back but to show him how he could be even better. Rather than reviewing 20 plays from the previous Sunday's game on which Miller was outstanding, Smith focused on a handful of downs on which Miller did not finish strong, showing him how a little extra effort might have resulted in a big play. When they were finished, Miller turned and thanked Smith. "That's why Coach Smith and I get along the way we do," says Miller. "Even if I come off a great game, there's always something I can do better."
Says Smith, "He wants to be coached. In one year he has gained so much confidence, and he hasn't even come close to touching his full potential."
How hard is Miller willing to chase greatness? You watch as he lines up at gunner on punts during practice, trying to beat press coverage at the line of scrimmage—his way of simulating a double team in pass protection. Then you see him line up in front of the gunner on a punt return drill, trying to prevent the player from getting downfield—his way of simulating covering a tight end. Then you hear that as a rookie he had a teammate drive him to the Broncos' facility on a rare day off during training camp so he could study film. While there he called Smith at home to discuss the previous day's scrimmage. And then you recall a lesson from Miller's childhood that his father had related.
When his boys were young, Von Sr. would cut the bottom out of a cup and pour water into it. Then he'd show them that the cup was empty. Next he would pour water into a cup whose bottom had not been removed and show the boys a full cup. The message: It doesn't matter how much you put in if you don't have a foundation. For Von that means doing the extra work.
"You can see his improvement from last year," says Raiders tackle Khalif Barnes. "He tried to go low on me once or twice in his rookie year, and I was able to jam him to the ground. This year he has done a better job of timing things up. And if your hands are late, he'll just bullrush you. He's just got so many moves in his repertoire that it's tough. He's gotten smarter with his moves."
And then, always, there's his freakish flexibility. It allows a big man to get small and slip through the tiniest of crevices. His father first noticed it when Miller was five and did splits while watching an exercise program on TV. And Lusk, his youth coach, noticed it his first week of football practice.
He had told Miller to use an "L" rush: Go four yards straight upfield, then cut 90 degrees in the direction of the QB. After a few times young Von wondered why he couldn't round off his run, to get into the backfield quicker. So he burst off the line, dipped his inside shoulder low to the ground and was waiting on the quarterback before he could complete his backpedal.
"Von is as athletically gifted at rushing the passer as anybody I've seen," says Dumervil. "What he can do with his body is abnormal. He's going to be great for a long time."
On the football field, not the basketball court.