Can Von Miller burnish his legacy by leading the Bills to their first Super Bowl?

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — There’s a voice in Von Miller’s head during the big moments. At the end of games, when his team needs a play and everything is on the line.

Up by 3 with 1:25 left in Super Bowl LVI last February, the Los Angeles Rams defense needed a stop. All game long, Miller — then a Rams outside linebacker — had been setting the Cincinnati Bengals up to use his ghost move in the pass rush.

Finally, it was time to unleash it.

“You can do it. You are a pro. This is what you were made for,” Miller likes to tell himself.

“It’s that voice in your head. I want to do everything I possibly can to put myself in a good situation,” Miller said. “It’s all positive talk cause I’ve done everything I possibly could do to be successful.”

Miller and defensive tackle Aaron Donald combined for four sacks and 11 QB pressures in the Super Bowl victory. Miller, who tied Charles Haley for the most career sacks in Super Bowl history (4.5), thrived in the postseason when Los Angeles needed him most — his postseason pass rush win rate of 41.5% was the highest by a player in a single postseason (with a minimum of 30 pass rush plays) since ESPN started tracking that metric in 2017.

The Rams wanted to bring Miller back this offseason, and to listen as Miller describes his time with the Rams is to wonder why he didn’t re-sign. Not only was the on-field production with Donald worthwhile, but Miller said that he was rejuvenated by Los Angeles, a city that reflects his bright personality.

“I was playing with one of the best defensive players that ever played in the game [in Donald], and I look at myself as one of the best defensive players in the game,” Miller said. “And I was brought there for a purpose to go there and win a Super Bowl.”

But there’s the ultra-competitive part of him, too. When Miller was on the phone on March 16 with his long-time agent, Joby Branion of Vanguard Sports, and his dad, Von Miller Sr., discussing the big decision of whether to join the Buffalo Bills as a free agent — his first big decision since deciding to go to Texas A&M, they reminded him — his dad said Von had a chance with the Bills to do something no other player in NFL history has done: play in and win three Super Bowl with three different franchises. He could also help bring a long-awaited first title to Buffalo, on a team that already has a top defense and a franchise quarterback. The Bills take on Miller’s former Rams team on Thursday’s NFL season opener (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

“I wasn’t content where I was at, I still wanted more,” Miller said. “This organization wants a Super Bowl. It’s a win-win for both sides and I just want to be a part of something special.”

The Bills signed Miller to a six-year, $120 million contract with $51 million guaranteed, making an uncharacteristic splash in free agency to find the missing piece who can get them over the hump after falling short of their goal the last two seasons, losing to the Kansas City Chiefs both times. The Bills need a playoff-tested veteran who can lead and make timely plays on the field, but they also need a teacher who can elevate his teammates off it — and that’s what they have in Miller.

With so much riding on the pairing working for both sides, the pressure for Miller and the organization to finally put together that complete season couldn’t be higher.

SUPER BOWL CONTENDERS have a few key components. The Bills took care of the franchise quarterback by drafting Josh Allen in 2018. He’s the first quarterback in NFL history to have at least 100 passing touchdowns and 30 rushing touchdowns in his first four seasons.

As general manager Brandon Beane’s team building continued, he tried to take care of the other areas that were lacking, including the offensive line (extending Pro Bowl left tackle Dion Dawkins) and the wide receiver core (trading for Pro Bowler Stefon Diggs), but the pass rush remained an issue despite heavy investment through the draft.

The Bills used top draft picks on pass-rushers Greg Rousseau (Rd. 1, 2021), AJ Epenesa (Rd. 2, 2020) and Boogie Basham (Rd. 2, 2021) over the past two years, but have gotten nine sacks total from the three. And last season’s top pass-rusher, Mario Addison (seven sacks), is now with the Houston Texans. No Bill has finished a season with double-digit sacks since Lorenzo Alexander (12.5) in 2016.

It wasn’t that the Bills were bad at the line of scrimmage — from 2017-21, Buffalo ranked fifth in pass rush win rate (47.8%) — it was completing the play that was the problem. During that stretch, the team was tied for 20th in sacks (187) with the Titans.

That was evident as the Bills lost in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, in part due to an inability to pressure quarterback Patrick Mahomes consistently when it mattered most (contacted on a combined 16.7% of throws).

In Miller, the Bills got a player who can impact the outcome of games directly and force teams to account for him. Since 2017, the Bills are 22nd in fourth-quarter sacks (52).

Miller has the most fourth-quarter sacks in the regular and postseason since 2011 (51).

“He’s one of those guys who can close the game out,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “And we’ve had some good rushers here and we played some good defense, but to be able to have a guy in the fourth quarter, when the game’s on the line, who can come up with that big play, that’s gonna be huge for us.”

Miller is also the only player on the Bills roster to have a Super Bowl ring. He brings big-game experience, but he’s also been a mentor to those younger pass-rushers who have yet to develop.

“I’m an open book and I’m going to force some of my chapters on them,” Miller said of Bills’ younger players. “I’m going to force some of the stuff I know on them. It’s just little things.”

During practices, Miller often explains why and how he does certain moves and then extends that discussion in the meeting rooms. “I told him one time that I wanted to work on my rush angle, and I wanted to work on this,” Epenesa said. “We get to the film room a couple hours later and he sees that I was working on my rush angle in practice. And he turns and goes, ‘AJ, that was a really good rush angle right there.’ … Having him there and then to not necessarily verify it, but to like, help teach things as well and help give his opinion.”

Prominent former Bills had been lobbying for a difference-making defender like Miller. Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith, who played 19 seasons including 15 for Buffalo, had been pounding the table — to GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott and the team’s owners, Terry and Kim Pegula — to add a dynamic pass-rusher who could change the outcome of these crucial games.

“I’ve been saying that for years. For years,” Smith said. “And, even in the text chain that I have with my teammates, Jim Kelly, Thurman [Thomas] and Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley, and Steve Tasker, and some of the others, that’s the first thing I bring up and they echo the same thing. We need that guy.”

At 33 years old, Miller still believes he has plenty of productive years ahead of him. He’s relied on speed and explosiveness, not his power, to win at the line of scrimmage, which should help prolong his career. Of the top 21 all-time sack leaders, 15 have seen a decrease in their sack production from 33 and up. But Chuck Smith, a pass-rush trainer and mentor who has known Miller for almost a decade, isn’t concerned.

“M-O-V-E-S. Moves. He’s got moves, and they work in a 5-yard area,” Smith said. “He doesn’t have to run a 4.2. He doesn’t have to be strong; he doesn’t have to be the biggest guy in the world. The secret to Von Miller is he’s got high-performance pass-rush moves.”

FOR MILLER, BEING named one of the Bills’ four defensive captains in his first year with the team was a big deal. Despite not being at every OTA or being with the team long, he was making an impact. “Honestly, people are gonna say what they wanna say, but I really do value what my teammates say about me when I’m not around, and I value what my opponents say about me when I’m not around,” Miller said. “People that I go against, the people that I work with, I value their opinion. I care about what they say about me and my career and my legacy.”

Many players have more than three Super Bowl rings, and there are two players with three rings from three franchises but who didn’t play in all the games — linebacker Matt Millen and running back Kenjon Barner.

Millen said that to him, three rings with three franchises is “meaningless.” For Miller, becoming the first is about his legacy, what people think when they hear, “Von Miller.”

“How he’ll be remembered and what people say about him, what people are saying about him when he’s not around, that’s important to him,” Tony Jerod-Eddie, Miller’s longtime friend said.

Von’s Vision, his foundation that helps low-income students receive eye care, is part of that legacy. So is his son, Valor — Miller’s first child — who was born over a year ago. But it’s important to Miller that his son is proud of his dad when he grows up.

“That’s one of the biggest things about me and my retirement. I just wanna get to a point where he could remember,” Miller said. “I’m gonna keep playing until God says the same or God says no or whatever it takes. But in my opinion, if I had my way, I would play to a point where my kids remember me playing. They could come to the facility, and they know my teammates and the coaches. And then I can wrap it up.”

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