Miller's status threatens Broncos' formula

Denver Broncos Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller is facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, according to multiple sources. Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports

The “mile-high” optimism of the Denver Broncos suffered a severe wind-shear jolt when reports came out Monday that linebacker Von Miller might face a four-game NFL suspension.

Miller is one of the best defensive players in the game. Last year, he battled J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith in one of the best defensive player of the year races in a long time. He had 18.5 sacks, 27 quarterback knockdowns and 12 quarterback hurries.

Combine those numbers with Elvis Dumervil, who had 11 sacks, 20 knockdowns and 9.5 hurries, and Peyton Manning had the ideal complement on defense to what he does on offense. In Indianapolis, Manning annually kept making the playoffs because he grabbed leads in the fourth quarter and the Colts’ pass-rushers -- Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis -- could close out wins with sacks and possible turnovers.

The possible loss of Miller for four games, along with the departure of Dumervil, puts that formula in jeopardy. It may even change some of the plans to run a quicker-paced offense. If the Broncos don’t have a pass rush, Manning might be forced to run the ball more to eat up clock and protect Denver’s defense.

John Elway felt good enough about his defensive talent that he took a gamble to free up salary-cap room. He approached Dumervil and his agent about taking a significant pay cut from his $12 million salary. Here was the thinking: Dumervil had 11 sacks, but only four of them came in the critical closing moments of victories.

With less than an hour before a deadline that would have guaranteed Dumervil’s salary, Dumervil’s agent agreed to a pay cut, but the paperwork on the restructured deal didn’t get to the Broncos in time, so the defensive end was released.

Despite the loss of Dumervil, the Broncos felt the defense would survive. Former first-round pick Robert Ayers would be given a chance to start. Derek Wolfe, a second-round pick from last year, showed some pass rushing skills as a rookie. Elway even added former San Diego Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips.

As long as Miller had a chance to be the star of the defense, the Broncos’ front office felt confident. Now, it has to worry.

What makes things even worse is the first game. The Broncos have to face the Baltimore Ravens, the team that ended up signing Dumervil. A loss to the Ravens could come back to haunt the Broncos in the playoffs in terms of seeding and home-field advantage.

Losing Miller for the first four games could put the Broncos in position for an 0-2 start. Their second game is on the road against the New York Giants and Eli Manning.

As the New England Patriots found out after the Aaron Hernandez murder charge stunned them, things can change quickly for a franchise. The Broncos were embarrassed with the arrests of two front-office executives for DUI. Matt Russell and Tom Heckert were suspended for a month.

Now Miller’s status is in question. Even though the Broncos are coming off a 13-3 season and have the league’s easiest schedule, an offseason of optimism is seeing some storm clouds.