As kickoff neared before Super Bowl 50, Von Miller quietly prepared while a boisterous teammate stalked the Denver Broncos locker room.
“Who ready?” cornerback Aqib Talib repeatedly asked. “Who scared?”
Talib went from locker to locker. He stared into the eyes of every player, posing his questions like a mantra as the Broncos readied to play the Carolina Panthers.
When Talib approached the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Miller, the outside linebacker calmly turned and locked eyes with Talib.
“What do you see?” Miller asked.
Six years later, Talib vividly remembers.
“I could watch the game in his eyes,” Talib said. “The look that was in his eyes was empty — it was blank, man.
“He was turnt up. I said, ‘You going to win the MVP, bro.’”
Talib was prescient. In a Broncos victory, Miller produced one of the most dominating performances in Super Bowl history and earned most-valuable-player honors.
That is one reason why in November the Rams traded for Miller, an eight-time Pro Bowl player and one of the preeminent pass rushers in NFL history. They wanted the 11th-year pro to play alongside star tackle Aaron Donald and help them make a run to Super Bowl LVI.
“They brought me here for the playoffs,” Miller said last week.
On Monday night, the Rams play the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC wild-card game at SoFi Stadium. A victory would be the first postseason step toward fulfilling the star-studded Rams’ mandate to host the Super Bowl in owner Stan Kroenke’s $5-billion stadium.
Miller has five sacks for a team that rebounded from a midseason three-game losing streak to win five games in a row before losing in overtime to the San Francisco 49ers in their season finale.
“He’s been making a lot of big-splash plays for us. That’s why he’s here. … The plays he’s capable to make for us in big-time moments.”
— Aaron Donald, Rams defensive tackle, on Von Miller
Now, the playoffs begin. Miller has 6½ sacks in seven playoff games.
“These are the times that we need our best players to be able to step up and shine,” coach Sean McVay said. “You’ve seen him play really well in some of these crunch-time moments over the last couple weeks.
“That’s what we’re looking forward to seeing Von continue to do.”
Miller, nursing an ankle injury when he joined the Rams, needed five games to record his first sack. He’s had at least one in the last four games, including one that clinched a victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
“He’s been making a lot of big-splash plays for us,” Donald said, adding, “That’s why he’s here. … The plays he’s capable to make for us in big-time moments.”
Star cornerback Jalen Ramsey said that when he was playing at Florida State, Miller was one of his favorite players. After beginning his pro career in 2016, Ramsey and Miller spoke about one day playing for the same team.
“He’s been in a position that we all want to be in and that’s winning the Super Bowl, holding up that trophy,” Ramsey said, adding, “He’s done things at a high level for a very long time.”
Los Angeles Times NFL writer Sam Farmer predicts the wild-card playoff winners, and all of them are not the higher seeds.
Miller, 32, grew up in Texas and starred at Texas A&M. The Broncos selected him with the second pick in the 2011 draft, and he quickly established himself with 11½ sacks and Pro Bowl recognition as a rookie. The next season he amassed a career-best 18½ sacks and was voted All-Pro.
In 2014, Talib signed with the Broncos as a free agent. Miller made an immediate impression with his welcoming attitude.
“Everything I could possibly need, he was like, ‘Man, let me do it for you. Let me get it,’” Talib said. “I’m like, man, he’s acting like a player personnel guy.”
During offseason workouts, Miller’s talent immediately stood out — especially his leg strength.
“Von’s quads, they’re like horse quads,” Talib said. “He always had a fast get-off. … That’s the first thing that stood out to me. I’m like, ‘Damn, this boy is like super explosive.’”
Miller helped the Broncos make playoff appearances in his first four seasons before Wade Phillips was hired as defensive coordinator in 2015.
Phillips installed his signature 3-4 scheme, and Miller caught on quickly. Yet Phillips, looking back, chuckled recalling several exchanges during practices when the ebullient linebacker was on the sideline throwing passes.
“Von, you need to watch what’s going on,” Phillips said.
“Coach, I can play quarterback!” Miller responded.
“I don’t care if you can play quarterback,” Phillips said. “We’ve got Peyton Manning. We don’t need ya at quarterback.”
Miller had 11 sacks that season. He terrorized Tom Brady and recorded 2½ sacks in the AFC championship game victory over the New England Patriots, setting the stage for the Super Bowl.
The Panthers featured league MVP Cam Newton. Phillips said the plan was to rush with four players, with Miller assigned to tracking the quarterback.
“We were worried about him running with it,” Phillips said of Newton. “And then we got in the game, our rush was so good, and I didn’t think Cam could get away, and we said, ‘Well, we’ll just start rushing Von.’”
Shortly thereafter, Miller sacked Newton and forced him to fumble. The Broncos recovered the ball for a touchdown. Miller forced another fumble at the four-yard line and the Broncos turned it into a touchdown. By the time the Broncos had wrapped up a 24-10 victory, Miller had 2½ sacks, two forced fumbles and a pass defended.
Miller produced three more seasons of at least 10 sacks. He had eight in 2019, then was sidelined in 2020 because of a left ankle injury that required surgery.
Miller had 4½ sacks for the Broncos this season before he reinjured the ankle in an Oct. 21 loss at Cleveland. Less than two weeks later, he was traded to the Rams for second- and third-round draft picks.
“I went to sleep 4-4, and woke up 7-1,” he said during his introductory news conference, saying five times that it felt like something out of a movie.
Miller said he wanted the Rams pass rush to recreate the famed Fearsome Foursome, but he cautioned in following weeks that it might take time. He compared the situation to LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade joining forces with the NBA’s Miami Heat. He also has referenced teamwork between former Lakers Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Now he appears to be in sync with Donald, a three-time NFL defensive player of the year. Miller has 115½ career sacks, Donald has 98.
Phillips, the Rams’ defensive coordinator from 2017 to 2019, said the two future Hall of Famers have much in common.
“Both of them have so much power and strength and quickness, but they also have the determination to be great,” Phillips said. “They’re always competing with the other guy, but also competing against themselves to be better all the time.
“That’s the common denominator.”
Talib, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, played four seasons in Denver before playing for the Rams in 2018 and 2019. Now an analyst for Fox Sports, he said Miller made five or six explosive plays a game.
“It was the exact same thing with Aaron Donald,” Talib said, “but it was coming from the middle of the field.”
All-Pro Rams Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Cooper Kupp ready to test their mettle in NFC wild-card home game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said it took time for Miller to become comfortable, but now he complements Donald, who has 12½ sacks.
“He’s really starting to find his way around Aaron Donald and how to play with him,” Morris said, adding, “I’m really fired up to see that, and how that’s going to transpire throughout the playoffs.”
So is Talib. Miller at 32 might not be the player that he was at 26, but his experience and savvy give him an edge, Talib said.
“He’s hungry — he wants another Super Bowl and he’s going to be super productive in the playoffs,” Talib said. “As good as he’s been for the Rams so far, I don’t even think you’ve seen the real Von Miller yet.”
Miller was not the only star the Rams added. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. signed after the Miller trade, enabling the two longtime friends to fulfill a dream of playing together and pursuing a championship.
“I’ve watched him, I’ve been there with him in the offseason, I’ve worked out with him, competed against each other,” Beckham said. “So, it’s just time, man. It’s just time to put it all together.”
Miller is excited to be back in the playoffs for the first time since the Broncos’ Super Bowl run. And he is eager to share his knowledge about what it takes to win in the postseason.
“This is it right here,” he said. “It’s time. I’m here. This is what it’s about.”
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Gary Klein covers the Los Angeles Rams for the Los Angeles Times. Before that, he covered USC’s football program and athletic department. He began working for The Times in the San Fernando Valley edition and has reported on high school, college and pro sports. He grew up in Southern California and graduated from Cal State Northridge.
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