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With Marcus Cannon likely sidelined, how will the Patriots handle Von Miller?

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Oakland Raiders v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Hurries. Pressures. Sacks.

It doesn’t matter how you quantify the effectiveness of a pass rusher — Von Miller does it all.

He’s been the best pure edge rusher in the game since he burst on the scene in 2011, tallying 11.5 sacks in his rookie season. In 2012 he accumulated 18.5 sacks and forced six fumbles en route to a First-Team All-Pro selection — an honor he’s accomplished three times.

Astonishingly enough, the second overall selection of the 2011 draft and five-time Pro Bowler has yet to win a Defensive Player of the Year award. And while names like Calais Campbell, Jalen Ramsey, and Demarcus Lawrence are garnering many of the headlines, the former Texan A&M Aggie has quietly been on a mission in 2017.

According to Pro Football Focus, Miller is leading all edge defenders with 47 quarterback pressures. He is also their highest graded overall edge defender thus far in 2017, ranking second against the run, and fifth in effectiveness on pass rushing snaps. He’s tallied eight sacks so far this season — five which are categorized as “high quality” according to the Contextualized Sack Production metric produced by Jon Ledyard of Fanragsports.com.

This week, with the Patriots coming to town, and right tackle Marcus Cannon failing to suit up for practice due to an ankle injury sustained in the team’s week-eight victory over the Chargers in Foxborough, Miller is likely to face backup swing tackle LaAdrian Waddle. For Patriots fan, it’s a match up that is likely to conjure up unpleasant memories of the 2015 AFC Championship Game.

You remember the game. Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle, Marcus Cannon at right tackle — each reduced to nothing more than human turnstiles by Miller and DeMarcus Ware as Malik Jackson demoralized Josh Kline, Bryan Stork, and rookie Shaq Mason. Miller’s finished the game with 2.5 sacks and an interception. Two weeks later, he racked up 2.5 more sacks against Cam Newton and company as Denver won the title in Santa Clara.

In their 16-3 victory over the Broncos last December, the Patriots were intent preventing Miller from taking the game over. They attacked Denver’s Jackson-less interior with a steady dose of Dion Lewis (18 carries, 95 yards) and LeGarrette Blount (17 carries, 31 yards, TD), controlling the clock and forcing Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian to beat them.

With a horrific quarterback situation unfolding in the Mile High City this year, the Patriots’ game plan should closely resemble the run-heavy attack that lead to their victory a season ago. However, this Broncos defense isn’t playing the same brand of football that they were in 2016.

Last year, the Broncos defense finished the season first in footballoutsiders.com’s overall defensive DVOA — 21st against the run, and third against the pass. But heading into week 10 this year, the script has been flipped. Denver is currently second in DVOA against the run, and 15th against the pass this season. Overall, they rank 6th in non-weighted DVOA — down four spots from the previous week after allowing four Carson Wentz touchdown passes and 51 total points in a drubbing in Philadelphia.

This concerted effort by Denver’s front-seven to bottle up opposing running backs this season has been led on the interior by Derek Wolfe, second-year man Adam Gotsis, and Shelby Harris, a 2014 seventh-round pick of the Raiders who is making the most of his opportunity with his fourth team in as many seasons. If they can do their part to contain the Patriots’ resurgent rushing attack, it will force Tom Brady to drop back more often than Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are likely comfortable with — unleashing Von Miller upon LaAdrian Waddle.

This, of course, is a recipe for disaster. So, how will the Patriots keep the Von-ster at bay?

First, expect Rob Gronkowski to be called upon heavily. He’s arguably the best game’s best, most willing blocker at the tight end position. In week three, against a Houston front-seven with a healthy J.J. Watt, and coincidentally without Marcus Cannon, the Patriots tasked Gronkowski with assisting Waddle with the game on the line.

The game-winning drive lasted nine plays. Gronkowski was asked to chip Watt, or stay at home completely on six of them. He also managed to catch two passes for 23 yards, including a critical conversion on third and twelve from their own 23 yard line.

On the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks, he stayed home, helping Waddle eliminate Watt from the play and giving Brady all the time he needed to find his target deep down the sideline and into the front corner of the end zone.

In the Patriots’ week-eight win over Los Angeles, and again with Marcus Cannon out of the game due to injury against a talented pass-rushing unit, the Patriots went a slightly different route — two running back sets.

With the addition of a healthy Rex Burkhead to the New England backfield, we’ve seen a slight uptick in the Patriots usage of these personnel packages.

The Patriots utilized this package four times in this game — all on third downs. They threw each time, and Brady completed three of the four attempts for 31 yards while converting on a third and 10, and a third and 12.

This pre-snap formation allows a pocket to form naturally around the quarterback, while also allowing New England to squeeze additional skilled personnel like White and Burkhead onto the field simultaneously. Each player requires the defense to account for their presence as a receiver, while being fully capable of pass protection and blitz pickup if asked to stay home.

With Chris Hogan all but ruled out for Sunday’s game in Denver, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots continually utilizing packages like this to allow Rob Gronkowski to take advantage of every opportunity available to him in the passing game.

Of course, there is one more approach the Patriots can take if the previous two schemes fail to keep Von Miller from destroying their game plan.

Pray.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter- @BPhillips_PP