Going into the 2014 offseason, John Elway and the Denver Broncos front office knew they needed an elite safety to anchor the secondary. T.J. Ward might not be Earl Thomas, but he’s among the best strong safeties in the league. Really, the only player I would maybe take over Ward is Kam Chancellor.
The Broncos signed him early in the free agent frenzy to a four-year, $22.5M deal. Their hope was that if Rahim Moore could turn the corner in his development as a ground-covering centerfielder, they would have one of the best secondaries in the NFL, especially once they signed Aqib Talib.
Moore might not have taken a quantum leap in his development, but he had arguably his best season as a pro and a career-high in interceptions. Ward was a big reason behind that. Ward, Moore, Chris Harris, Jr., Talib and rookie first round pick Bradley Roby all coalesced into a unit that became one of the most feared in the league.
Moore is gone. But the Broncos went out and signed Darian Stewart to take his place, who is at least as good as a cover safety and a better, more physical player in the running game. The Broncos secondary should be even better this season.
Ward’s first year with the Broncos was good, but he had his ups and downs. In this film piece, we’ll take a look at some of his best plays, along with a couple that new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will hopefully study and learn from.
All animated images via NFL Rewind.
Play No. 1
Week 16 at Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have been running the ball with success and come out in 11-personnel (1 RB, 1TE), with TE Jermaine Gresham in-line on the right and WR Mohamed Sanu in tight, but they’re giving the Broncos an unbalanced line look, with RT Eric Winston on the left inside of LT Andrew Whitworth. QB Andy Dalton is in the shotgun with RB Jeremy Hill.
The Broncos are in their “big” nickel sub-package, with Ward in the box over the LT. The Broncos often used Ward as another linebacker in their sub-packages and this play shows us why—he’s a beast.
At the snap, TE Gresham and RG Kevin Zeitler will pull, going left across the formation, while WR Sanu seals of the backside, as the handoff goes to RB Hill. The objective is to run it off the edge. LT Whitworth immediately kicks out to take on Ward and TE Gresham soon engages in a double team.
CB Bradley Roby sees the action coming his way and crashes down to cut off his edge, which forces RB Hill inside. But by this point, Ward has shed the double team and wraps Ward up for no gain. To shed the block of a Pro Bowl LT is impressive enough, but Ward makes the tackle through the double team.
Play No. 2
Week 6 at New York Jets
The Jets are trying to spread the Broncos out on the goal-line, after a failed attempt to pound the rock. Two receivers are split out on each side, with TE Jace Amaro singled up with Ward at the bottom of the screen. It’ll be mano-a-mano.
The Broncos are in their nickel sub-package. The decision to leave the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ward on an island with the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Amaro is questionable, especially with Ward’s struggles against big-bodied, athletic TEs. Amaro has seven inches and 65 pounds on his opponent. The Jets recognize it and Smith targets his rookie TE.
Smith throws a nice jump ball. Amaro and Ward are hand-fighting, but just as Amaro goes to make his jump, he gives a small push-off and gains the separation he needs to haul in the pass. Be that as it may, this is still a play Ward could have made.
Ward may have been out-matched physically, but he never got his head turned around to track the ball and his last second attempt to punch the ball out is ineffectual. In most situations, Amaro would have been flagged for pushing off, but Ward could have played this with better technique and perhaps would have stood a better chance at success.
Likely, this is a play that Ward would fail to make 7-out-of-10 times, because it’s not his forte. He might be a physical player, but he’s not long enough, or polished enough as a cover man, to stop these type of plays consistently.
Opposing defensive coordinators figured that out early in the season and looked for any opportunity to single Ward out with a big, athletic tight end. Ward is most easily exposed in redzone situations, where space is limited. That’s where his size (or lack thereof) can hurt him.
Play No. 3
Divisional Round vs. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are in 01-personnel, with an empty set. There is no RB in to chip or help protect luck. They have a trips formation left, with TE Coby Fleener inside. It’s third-and-10 and the Broncos need a stop, as they’re trailing by a score.
The Broncos are in their “big” nickel sub-package, with a trio of safeties on the field in Ward, David Bruton and Rahim Moore. Moore plays the deep centerfielder role, while Bruton and Ward are matched up on receivers one-on-one. The Broncos play man coverage. Ward lines up on Fleener.
At the snap, the Broncos blitz, bringing LB Brandon Marshall in the “A” gap. QB Andrew Luck feels the heat and fires early. Ward trails his man in tight coverage and as Luck’s pass angles towards them, Ward gets his left arm tucked into Fleener’s back and bats the ball away for the incompletion.
As we’ve discussed, it’s a risky proposition lining Ward up one-on-one with an athletic tight end, but he plays this one great. He’s able to utilize his quickness and short area speed to stay with his man and deflect the pass. This could have easily been an interception.
Play No. 4
Divisional Round vs. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are in 11-personnel, with Luck in the shotgun. TE Dwayne Allen is in-line on the strong side. The Broncos are in the “big” nickel and they run a cover three zone. Ward is lined up in the box as a LB.
At the snap, TE Allen chips OLB Von Miller and then runs a flat route into Ward’s zone. Meanwhile, WR T.Y. Hilton, who had a great day vs. Denver, basically runs a deep curl. The ball is a little late, but it’s on target. Ward, reading the QB, drifts toward Hilton with the ball in the air.
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However, Ward’s reputation has preceded him on this play, as Hilton loses concentration and drops the pass. Ward has laid some big hits in his career and subsequently has developed a reputation as a thumper. Some even consider him to be dirty.
And that’s okay because it serves the Broncos well. Hilton dropped this ball because he was worried about getting popped by Ward. You want your strong safety to have that kind of impact on the field, even if it’s collateral.
Play No. 5
Week 8 vs San Diego Chargers
Here we’re going to see QB Phillip Rivers and TE Antonio Gates run a play they’ve succeeded with countless times in their career together. The Chargers are in 11-personnel, trips left, with Gates lined up inside the right slot.
The Broncos are in their base nickel and Ward has responsibilities one-on-one with Gates. Ward lines up with inside technique, wanting to funnel Gates inside, which backfires. Rivers is working from the shotgun.
Again, we see a slight push off from Gates, who runs a curl route, but that is par for the course in the NFL. Ward is pushed out of the play for a heartbeat—but it’s long enough for Rivers to make the throw for a touchdown.
The size difference between Gates and Ward is significant. In the redzone, the new Broncos coaching staff will have to think of other ways to deploy Ward because he’s simply not cut out for “rebound” football one-on-one.
T.J. Ward earned his second career Pro Bowl berth in 2014. But he was far from perfect. However, he was a guy who set the tone for the Broncos top-5 defense. Was he perfect? No. But he brought a swagger to the defense and a physicality to the secondary that was sorely needed.
Ward is in his prime and the Broncos get him for another three years of it. The man might not be an island but he’s an instinctual playmaker who is most at home prowling the box. We talk about Wade Phillips scheming to players’ strengths, instead of the other way around. Hopefully he can find ways to put Ward in the best possible position to succeed in 2015.
In the video below from our brethren over at the Silver and Black Report, T.J. Ward talks about his Pro Bowl experience and Jack Del Rio.