There weren't a whole lot of tears shed in Broncos Country when Rahim Moore signed with the Houston Texans this past spring. Fair or not, Moore was unable to shed the stigma that haunted him in Denver from that fateful day in January of 2013, when a Joe Flacco hail mary went sailing over the young safety's outstretched arms.
Head coach Gary Kubiak became acquainted with Stewart's game last year in Baltimore, where the former undrafted rookie free agent from South Carolina produced his best year as a pro, starting 16 games (including playoffs). Factoring in his performances in the Wildcard and Divisional Round of the playoffs, he finished the season with a +7.0 cumulative grade via Pro Football Focus.
The Ravens really helped Stewart to turn the corner in his development. And now the Denver Broncos will get to reap the rewards. Teamed up with T.J. Ward, Stewart's skill-set is accentuated. And vice-versa for Ward. Both players are physical. Both are instincitve and unafraid in the box. Where Ward's game has holes—in coverage—Stewart's game bridges the gap. They both like to be the perpetrator on the field. And they've already built chemistry together.
“When we play each other, we actually chop it up here and there, but the relationship is good," Stewart said last week. "It's good chemistry.”
The Broncos new safety duo has been looking forward to finally playing against outside competition.
"We get to finally go out and practice against someone else actually, so it's live," Stewart. "I think that this is a big test for us and it's going to be great and very challenging."
As we saw on Friday night in Seattle, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is going to put pressure on the opposition. Often, that will come in the form of Ward blitzing off the edge. This aspect of Ward's game has always been great. He notched a career-high two sacks in 2014, his first year with the Broncos. I expect Ward to have another career year as a pass rusher under Phillips.
Stewart's coverage skills and his ability to play the psychological long-game with the opposing quarterback will allow Phillips to be aggressive in his blitz packages. Even though it was just a preseason exhibition game, we got an early glimpse of that approach on Friday night in Seattle.
All animated images via NFL Game Pass.
Play No. 1
In the play below we see Von Miller notch a phenomenal strip-sack, but watch on the other side of the line of scrimmage where Ward is blitzing off the edge. On the second defensive play from scrimmage.
Ward blows by TE Jimmy Graham with a perfectly timed jump off the snap. Ward gets Graham's momentum going, then sticks his foot in the ground and executes an inside spin move that gives him a straight path to QB Russell Wilson. This likely would have resulted in a sack of his own, had Miller not already eviscerated the RT.
We see here that in the right situation, Ward is a formidable pass rusher. When he's able to use his speed and explosiveness off the edge, good things happen. The flip-side is that if a 300-pound offensive lineman gets his hands inside the frame of the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Ward, he'll be totally contolled and blocked out of the play. Phillips knows this. He'll find ways to make the most of Ward's size and skill-set and play the match-up game. Blitz timing is critical.
Play No. 2
On the Seahawks second possession of the game, we got to see an early glimpse of how Stewart will impact the defense. Physicality was not one of Rahim Moore's strong suits, although, to be fair, he did improve dramatically last year in run support. Stewart, on the other hand, is as comfortable and instinctual in the box as Ward is, as we see in the play below.
Here we see the Seahawks lined up in a 3-WR set. Phillips deploys his version of the 'big-nickel' sub-package, which puts SS Ward in the box as a LB and David Bruton in at free safety. Stewart slides over to SS. The Broncos show a two-high look to start, with the corners playing off-coverage, but as the play clock winds down, Stewart creeps down into the box to either play the underneath hole, or defend the run.
In this case, it's a handoff up the middle and after a brief hesitation, Stewart fires downhill and wraps the ball-carrier up for four-yard gain. As you can see, Robert Turbin would have notched another couple of yards, had Stewart not been so decisive. This is an encouraging glimpse of what we can expect from Stewart in run support.
Play No. 3
Later on the same drive, the Seahawks are in business in the redzone, on the Broncos nine-yard line. Seattle is in 21-personnel, with twin receivers right to start. The inside WR Tyler Lockett goes in motion, taking Bradley Roby with him across the formation. The Broncos are in base defense, with Ward hovering close to the box and Stewart as the single-high safety.
The handoff is designed to go off the right side, but Turbin sees daylight on the backside, and cuts it back. The Broncos are flowing right and have to adjust when Turbin makes his cut. Roby has backside contain but fails to set the edge, which allows Turbin to turn the corner and get downhill. At this point, it's looking like six points for Seattle.
But Stewart keeps his eyes on the ball-carrier and breaks toward the sideline like a missile, forcing Turbin out of bounds several yards short of the goal-line. There's no guarantee this would have been a touchdown, as several other Broncos were in close pursuit. But it very well could have been, had Stewart not covered so much ground to force the play out of bounds.
We only got to see Ward and Stewart together on the field for a total of nine plays on Friday but their performance together was impressive. It's a small sample size, granted. But Broncos fans are going to love watching these two play together.
Ward earned a +0.6 cumulative grade via PFF, while Stewart earned a +0.3. Stewart could be the latest under-the-radar free agent signing by Elway who could go on to not only be a key contributor, but a star in potentia.
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