The 5 Toughest Players I Ever Faced


When I first got to Denver, in 2014, Von Miller put a spark in me.

I’ve always been fast, and I knew that Von was fast, too. But I thought there was no way he was faster than me.

But he was faster. Like, next-level fast.

I remember one of the first times I lined up with Von — me on the right side, him on the left — and I jumped the snap. I timed it perfectly. But when I looked down the line of scrimmage, Von was already gone. He had gotten a better jump.

I was like, No way. He had to be offsides….

But he wasn’t. He’s just that quick off the line.

Watch how fast he gets off the ball on this play against the Patriots:

You see that? By the time number 71 takes his kick step, Von is already gone, like he got shot out of a cannon. On the replay, the guy on the teleprompter with the yellow pen can’t even draw on the screen before Von gets to Tom Brady — and Tom gets the ball out of his hands quicker than any quarterback in history.

Von also has a killer spin move, but he does it different than most guys.

I did my spin move like Dwight Freeney, who’s famous for his. I rip my arm through the tackle and get him to put his weight on me, thinking he’s using my momentum against me to push me out of the play. Then I use his momentum against him and spin out from underneath to get him off balance, and I’m free.

But when Von does his spin move, he doesn’t rip through to one side. He bull-rushes the guy straight up, and as soon as he hits the tackle and gets him on his heels or with his hands out in front of him, Von spins off, and he’s able to use his next-level speed to get around the block before the tackle has a chance to regroup.

A perfect example is this spin move from the Super Bowl against the Panthers:

Von’s spin is the perfect combination of power and speed — the power to put a 300-pound tackle on his heels, and the speed to get around his big body before he even knows what happened.

The reason I’m telling you about Von is because when I came to the Broncos, I was going into my 10th season and he was going into his fourth. So I was excited to get in there and work with a young pass rusher of his caliber. I’ve always enjoyed teaching young guys the tricks of the trade. But when I saw up close all the moves he was doing — moves I couldn’t even do — I thought, O.K., I can teach him, but he’s gonna show me some stuff, too.

That’s why I say he put a spark in me. Joining a team with a young guy like Von, who I could compete with, teach and learn from at the same time made me … I don’t know … recommit to my craft, I guess. I’ve always had a passion for the game — I still do. That’s what made the decision to retire so difficult. But Von really helped bring that passion out of me even more in Denver.

Now that I’ve officially retired, The Players’ Tribune asked me to look back on my 12 years in the NFL and highlight the five toughest players I ever faced, which basically means breaking down the players I admire the most and who pushed me throughout my career to be great.

Even though I never played against him, I couldn’t list those players without first talking about Von Miller. Now that I’ve done that, let’s take a look at the rest.

Here are the five toughest guys I ever faced.

Michael Vick
Everybody knows Michael Vick was fast. But I didn’t know how fast he really was until I played against him for the first time. It was in 2006, when I was with the Cowboys, and we were playing the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. On one play, Vick dropped back to pass, and he got pressured and stepped up into the pocket. I had been patient — you had to be with a guy like Vick — and when he took off to run, I was right there waiting for him.

He was right in front of me, and I stretched my arms out wide to go in for the tackle and wrap him up. I was waiting for that oomph — you know, that pad-to-pad sound when you hit a guy, knock a little wind out of him and he goes down.

But when I closed my arms, I got nothing but air.

I completely whiffed.

I was lying there on the turf, looking around like, Where did he go? Is he still running?

He was still running.

Vick’s feet were so quick that when he was under center, he would take an eight-step drop, then he’d take three steps up into the pocket. And he did all that in the same amount of time it would take a normal quarterback to take a straight five-step drop. So he’d end up in the same spot — right there in the pocket, five yards deep — but those extra three steps on his drop would force the pass rushers deeper upfield, which would give him an extra split second to find a receiver downfield before the pocket collapsed. It also stretched the pocket out, creating bigger gaps for him to escape through on the ground.

Against me, Vick also had the advantage of being left-handed. So unlike right-handed quarterbacks, he could see me coming off the right side, which made it even more difficult to sack him. There was no sneaking up on him.

Over time, I learned that his favorite gap to run to was the B gap between the guard and tackle on his left side — my side of the defense. So what I would do is rush upfield — sometimes as deep as 10 yards — and get behind him, then spin back up into the pocket. When I had enough time to do that, I’d end up basically on his blind side with a clean shot at a strip sack.

If you were an edge rusher on the right side, that was the best way to sack Michael Vick. I sacked him 6.5 times in my career — four times in one game — mostly because of that move.

People always ask me if Michael Vick still had it when he was in Philly — if he was still as fast as he was when he was in Atlanta. And the answer is yes. Atlanta, Philly, New York, Pittsburgh … it didn’t matter where he was. He was always fast.

One thing coaches always say to pass rushers is, “You gotta chase the rabbit.”

Well, Michael Vick was the fastest damn rabbit I ever chased.

Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson plays with a linebacker’s mentality. He’s not a dodger. He’s not going to run away from you. He’s going to try to run through you.

In 2015, when we hosted the Vikings in Denver, I was lined up on the right side in a nine-technique, which means I was outside the tight end. Peterson took the handoff and ran to the C gap between the tackle and tight end on my side. So I shook the tight end off, crashed the C gap and squared up to make the tackle.

The next thing I remember is being flat on my back,  thinking to myself, Oh my God … everybody’s gonna see that on tape.

Joe Mahoney/AP

When we broke down game film, we would always start by watching the big-play highlights as a team before we broke into position groups. So I was dreading that film session because I knew everybody was going to see me get run over and I was never going to hear the end of it.

That week, we were in the film room, and when we got to that play, the coach who was playing the tape said, “O.K., on this play right here, DeMarcus … uhhh….” And he fast-forwarded through the play. He looked over at me and nodded, like, I got you.

My teammates went crazy. They were like, “No, coach, you gotta rewind it! We never seen D-Ware get run over before!”

Coach bailed me out on that one.

I know you probably want to see the play, too, just like my teammates did. But you know what? If my teammates didn’t get to see it, neither do you.

Besides, there’s no shortage of highlights of Adrian Peterson running people over.

Walter Jones
As a pass rusher, I have to put an offensive tackle on this list. And I’ve never played against another offensive lineman like Walter Jones.

The first time I saw Walter on film was before we played the Seahawks my rookie year. He was grabbing guys and throwing them to the sideline and dumping defensive tackles like they were nothing.

I was like, Oh Lord … who is this guy?

Usually, at the snap, an offensive tackle will kick back and cut off the pass rusher’s lane to the quarterback. But Walter Jones would turn and run with you. He could do that because he was athletic enough to do it. He was like 6-foot-5, 325 pounds, and he could run with just about anybody off the edge. I saw one report that said  in the 40-yard dash at a predraft workout. When an O-lineman runs a sub-5.00 40, people say he’s fast.

If that’s the case, Walter Jones was lightning.

Anybody who watched Walter remembers this play against the Panthers:

Walter is big number 71 on that play — the dude who got down to the goal line faster than the running back, Shaun Alexander, and did it while pushing a defensive end in front of him. You can see him flash the speed on that play, but he shows his strength, too. He was one of the strongest guys I ever faced. When he punched you in the chest, you felt like your heart was going to go flying out of your body.

A guy that big who can move that fast and has that kind of strength is almost impossible to get around.

Tom Brady
Tom always knows where the blitz is coming from. You can’t trick him. We’d get to the line and I’d be coming on a blitz, and before the snap he’d yell, “Blue 32 … Blue 32 … Ware! Ware! Ware!” And he’d point right at me.

I’d be like, How does he know I’m coming?

The keys to Tom’s game are recognizing the blitz and getting the ball out of his hands quickly. You rarely see him hold onto the ball.

The way to beat Tom Brady is to hit him. As many times as you can, hit him. And even then, it might not be enough. In the AFC Championship Game a couple of years ago, we sacked Tom four times and we hit him 20 times.

Twenty times.

Ric Tapia/AP

The thing was, every time we hit him, he got back up. We hit Tom more times than any quarterback had been hit in any game that season, and he still had his team a two-point conversion away from tying the game late in the fourth quarter. The dude is relentless.

Everybody knows what Tom Brady can do with the football. He has great arm strength. He’s accurate. He throws a great deep ball.

But he can also take a hit.

Like, 20 of them.

Peyton Manning
I have one … actually, I have two Peyton Manning stories.

When he was in Indianapolis, he had all these audibles and signals — you know, Omaha! and all that stuff. But what most people don’t know is that half of Peyton’s calls were fake. They were just dummy calls so he could see if the defense reacted to them, or just to give the defense something else to think about.

That was his deal.

He wanted to trick you.

Well, in 2006, when we were playing the Colts at old Texas Stadium in Irving, I decided to try and be a trickster myself.

On one play, I was split out covering a wide receiver in the slot. Now, when I covered out in the slot, I never rushed the quarterback. And I knew that Peyton watched more film than anybody, so I knew that he knew that I never rush in that situation, too.

So I faked him out.

I went out into the slot, and I didn’t even look back at Peyton, because I knew that if I looked back at him, he might expect me to motion back in and rush. So I kept my eyes locked on the slot receiver until the very last second, after Peyton had made all his calls and adjustments. And as soon as he was about to hike the ball, I started cheating inside. Since he had expected me to be in coverage and he thought there was no rusher coming off the right side, he had audibled to a play away from me, thinking his blind side would be clear.

Which means nobody was there to block me.

When Peyton hiked the ball, I made a dead beeline straight to him, and … boom! I blindsided him and knocked the ball out.

We didn’t recover the fumble, but we won the game, and I learned that to beat Peyton Manning, you have to beat him at his own game. It’s easier said than done, but you have to play the mental game with him. You gotta fake him out.

But Peyton got me back….

Fast-forward to 2013. Peyton was in Denver and I was still with the Cowboys. The Broncos had a third-and-goal on the one-inch line. And if there was one thing I was certain about at that moment, it was that Peyton Manning was not going to run the ball. At least I knew he wouldn’t be running to the outside. They only needed one inch. If anything, he’d run a QB sneak.

So when Peyton hiked the ball and dropped back to hand it off to Knowshon Moreno, I was certain it was a dive play up the gut. There was literally nobody blocking me. So I came clean down the line, and I was thinking, I’m gonna smash this guy and get the stop.

But when I got to the running back, I noticed that … he didn’t have the ball. Then I turned around and I saw Peyton running out to his left, going about two miles an hour, shuffling into the end zone.

He came up to me after that play and said, “D-Ware … I got you, man. You got me that one time, and now I got you.”

He remembered.

And he changed the play at the line of scrimmage to run that naked bootleg, just to get back at me.

That was the thing about Peyton: He was always the smartest player on the field, but he was also the most competitive. He was a master of the chess game, but he also remembered that one time I had gotten him seven years earlier, and he wanted to get me back.

That’s why he’s one of the all-time greats.