After losing starting free safety Rahim Moore on Thursday to the Houston Texans, the Denver Broncos signed his replacement on Friday, Darian Stewart. Stewart spent last season with the Baltimore Ravens, starting 16 games (including playoffs). As we mentioned in our Friday report, Stewart brings a versatility to the Broncos secondary that Moore simply did not have.
Stewart has range and high football IQ. He understands the psychological long-game of manipulating the quarterback. If there was one thing that Moore lacked that hurt him the most in his time with the Broncos, it was that. Stewart spoke about that savvy on Thursday, when asked point-blank what type of safety he is.
”Just smart and just playing the game how it’s supposed to be played,” he said. “Knowing what I’m getting from an offense and just playing the game with the quarterback (emphasis added). I feel like I do that well and I’m only getting better.”
Since Moore’s defection and the subsequent signing of Stewart, I’ve received a lot questions about the Broncos newest safety. Fans have expressed concern that the Broncos let a former second round pick walk, while replacing him with a former undrafted player. That perception, that drafted players are automatically more valuable than their undrafted brethren, is wrong on so many levels.
Look at the Broncos, for example. C.J. Anderson went undrafted out of California in 2013, while Montee Ball was drafted in the second round. Although Ball struggled with injury in 2014, it is clear that Anderson has flashed more consistently in the opportunities for playing time he received, than Ball has. And they both entered the league the same year. The NFL is a production-based business, and Anderson has produced.
With Stewart, he joins three Pro Bowlers in the Broncos secondary—T.J. Ward, Chris Harris, Jr. and Aqib Talib. Stewart will fit in well with this group and accentuate all of the secondary’s best attributes. Since Stewart signed his two-year deal on Thursday, I’ve taken some time to review some of his 2014 tape. And what I’ve gathered should encourage Broncos Country greatly.
The plays I’m going to break down all came in the Ravens 30-17 road victory in the Wildcard Round over AFC North Division champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Seeing how a guy like Stewart plays in the postseason, when all the chips are down and the competition gets taken up a notch, is key. Over the last three seasons, the Broncos have been notorious for playing their worst in the big postseason moments. When the Ravens needed it the most, Stewart gave them arguably his best performance.
All images via NFL Rewind.
Play No. 1
The first play comes at the 9:18 mark in the second quarter. The Ravens are protecting a four-point lead and Big Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers are driving, on the Ravens 32-yard line. The Steelers are running 11-personnel from the pistol. TE Heath Miller goes in motion from right to left. It’s a handoff to Josh Harris off left tackle.
The Ravens are in their nickel sub-package, with the safeties in a two-deep shell. Stewart (No. 24) is at free safety, at the bottom left corner of the screen.
The Steelers have it blocked well and it looks like it’s going to go for a nice chunk of yards. But Stewart instantly diagnoses the play and gets downhill in a hurry, covering ten yards in a blink of the eye, making the tackle and limiting the play to just a three-yard gain. This not only showcases Stewart’s vision and knowledge, but his speed and willingness to stick his nose in the muss. This will come in handy on the backend of the Broncos defense.
Play No. 2
The second play comes on the same drive, on the very next snap. The Steelers are on the Ravens 32 and it’s third-and-one. The Steelers are running a 3-TE jumbo look, which causes the Ravens to load the box with nine guys, leaving Stewart as the single-high safety. WR Antonio Brown goes in motion from right to left at the bottom of the screen. Big Ben play-action fakes to the RB.
The Ravens LCB plays the zone flat, which gives Brown a free release down the right sideline. Stewart initially gets beat, but recovers in time to force Brown out of bounds for an incomplete pass, saving a touchdown. This play showcases Stewart’s range as a centerfielder and his ability to recover, even when he gets behind for a half step. This will come in handy with how often T.J. Ward likes to lurk in the box.
Play No. 3
The third play comes with just over three minutes left in the game. The Ravens are protecting a 15-point lead, but the Steelers are in the redzone. The Steelers run 11-personnel, with Big Ben in the shotgun and a RB next to him. The Ravens are in their nickel sub-package, with the safeties in a two-deep shell, with Stewart at the top middle of the screen. The Ravens are able to get pressure rushing just four guys, forcing Big Ben to climb the ladder and think on his feet.
Stewart has responsibilities in the endzone over top, with the Ravens running zone coverage. He jumps Roethlisberger’s badly thrown ball and secures the interception. Although this was clearly a poor decision and throw by Big Ben, it shows Stewart’s play-awareness and possibly the result of a game-long psychological battle with the quarterback, which acquits him well. This is a great example of a player knowing the situation and being where he’s supposed to be.
At 5-foot-11, 210 pounds, Stewart has the size and speed to hold down the fort for the Broncos at free safety. He’s hitting the prime of his career and showed last season in Balitmore that he’s really turned the corner in his development. Again, he will fit in well with the Broncos secondary. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will have the benefit of getting creative in his coverages and blitz packages, with Stewart patrolling the deep.
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