“You said two seconds?” Miller asked reporters with a laugh. “Sometimes I only need like one.”
He was at least partly joking at the time, but Miller’s ability to get to the quarterback -- five sacks, six hits in the last two games -- was one of the biggest reasons the Broncos advanced past the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers.
The matchup in the AFC title game, specifically, represented a trend throughout the league: Quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball in record time. Defenses are trying to scheme up ways to force more pressure, giving QBs almost no time to make a pass.
At the core of the issue? Nearly every organization in the NFL is struggling to field a protective offensive line.
Next week, coaches, scouts and general managers will head to Indianapolis for the scouting combine. Many will speak publicly, and one of the themes throughout will be the need for upgrades up front.
Which prospects can move bodies in the run game and hold up in pass protection? According to Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider, the evaluations are trickier than ever.
“There’s several things that come into play here,” Schneider said during an interview with KJR-AM 950 earlier this offseason. “You have to go back to high school football. There’s a lot more teams playing the spread in high school football throughout the country.
“The pass protection isn’t quite as good. They’re not necessarily trained on the individual basis the way they have been in the past, like what we’re used to seeing as conventional, pro-style offenses.”
Schneider also said that many of the athletes who have the size and athleticism to be good offensive linemen are instead choosing to play defense.
“Quite honestly, it’s an easier position to play in terms of the thinking that goes into it,” he said. “Right when you come into college football, you can just let it rip. So I think there’s a lot of guys that just choose the defensive side of the ball. It’s a little flashier position than the offensive line.
“Also what’s happened: The NCAA has cut back on the time that these guys can spend on the field and in the building. So really, what we’ve noticed is a lot less individual work at the position and more team.”
Because demand outweighs supply, the simple solution of investing resources into the offensive line doesn’t guarantee success. Teams have been forced to explore alternate methods to make up for deficiencies up front, the most obvious of which is designing offenses that depend on the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly.
According to Football Outsiders research, the Cincinnati Bengals had the most efficient passing attack in the league last year. Andy Dalton started 13 games and released the ball (on average) in 2.20 seconds, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That’s the fastest time since the stat was first tracked in 2011.
The Patriots’ struggles up front have been well-documented. They used 39(!) different offensive line combinations in the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. But Brady got rid of the ball in 2.26 seconds, behind only Dalton. The Patriots ranked fourth in passing efficiency during the regular season.
“It’s one of the reasons the ball’s coming out so quick when you watch the New England Patriots,” Schneider said. “The ball’s just out so fast. Now these are great quarterbacks. But there’s a reason that they’re not hanging back in the pocket and holding on to that thing for a ton of time.”
Leaguewide, quarterbacks took 2.48 seconds to get rid of the ball in 2015. That number has gone down for four consecutive years. And there does appear to be the makings of a trend. Twenty quarterbacks were at 2.5 seconds or quicker last season; only seven hit that mark 2012.
There are still quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers who are brilliant at shaking off defenders and extending plays. But even those offenses -- specifically Seattle and Green Bay -- need elements of the quick passing game to make up for protection issues. For teams that don’t have elusive quarterbacks, getting rid of the ball quickly is even more important.
Of course, in football, whenever one side thinks it has a solution, the other develops a counter. The most obvious one is to find edge rushers who can get to the quarterback in a hurry. Unfortunately for defensive coordinators, there are not 32 Von Millers roaming the earth.
Another solution is to find corners who are capable of playing tight press coverage, forcing quarterbacks to hold on to the ball. In other words, take away the lay-ups.
“A guy like Brady, you’ve got to be able to have good corners, which we have, that can give the pass rush a little bit more extra time to get there,” DeMarcus Ware told reporters before the AFC title game. “If he’s getting rid of the ball in 1.9 seconds, nobody’s ever going to get to him. You have to be able to have those corners that can give you just a little bit extra time to get to him.”
In the Broncos’ win over the Patriots, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips did a brilliant job of mixing up his coverages, often sending only three or four pass-rushers. That proved to be an effective method to confuse Brady and force him to hold on to the ball as the pressure got home.
Themes from the Super Bowl sometimes have a way of shaping the offseason. Teams will continue to look for offensive line help in a competitive marketplace, but there will be other ripple effects.
Which available quarterbacks can process information quickly and get rid of the football? Which corners are most effective within the 5-yard window, forcing quarterbacks to hold on to it? And which pass-rushers can win with speed off the edge?
Those are some of the questions coaches and general managers will be focusing on in the months ahead.