Happy Tuesday, friends. Today I want to talk about the player acquisition who I think may end up being most impactful for the Broncos this season.
Of the three big ticket defenders the Broncos signed – DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward - it’s Ward who portends to affect the Broncos’ play on the field most consistently.
If for no other reason, it’s easy to make that prediction simply based upon the fact that he was on the field for 97% of the defensive snaps in games he played for the Browns in 2013. (That was all 16 of them, for the record.)
Compare that to Talib, who played 88% of the snaps in 15 of 18 Patriots games, and Ware, who played 69% of the snaps in 13 of 16 Cowboys games.
But wait, think about the positions they play! Aren’t pass rushers and cornerbacks fundamentally more impactful than safeties? Everybody knows this, right?
Let me ask you this – if there’s one persistent hole on the Broncos’ defense, what would you say it is? It’s got to be middle linebacker, right? For a while, the Broncos wouldn’t draft a defensive tackle, and then they started loading up on them. Now it’s the mike.
What if I told you that Ward is a part-time middle linebacker? Are you more interested in my prediction now? I watched the coaches’ film of two full Browns games to get a feel for how Ward was used, and what he was good at. I charted his alignments and activities as I went. What happened next will shock you. (I hate that Upworthy bullshit, for the record.)
Two deep shell
About 25% of the time in the two games I watched (at Patriots, vs. Bears) Ward lined up in a two-deep shell. For those who are new, that means that the two safeties line up near the hashmarks, and each usually takes half of the deep area of the field.
Of course, sometimes, the initial two-deep look is a disguise, and one safety rotates into the box just pre-snap, with the other becoming a single high safety. Ward did that about 3% of the time, and stayed deep 22% of the time.
The last few years, the Broncos have mostly been a single-high team, playing a lot of Cover 1 man free, and some Cover 3. That’s mainly been a function of the talent they have had, but I saw a lot of ability from Ward to play a deep half, much more than I ever saw from Duke Ihenacho.
Single high safety
About 9% of the time, Ward aligned as the single deep safety, usually with the other safety rotating into the box. This is a good tactic when a guy like Ward plays in the box a lot (we’ll get to that), but can hold up in the deep middle.
In order to help himself with angles, Ward tended to play single high about 5-8 yards deeper than a faster safety would. That can leave some room in the seams for completions, of course. Sometimes, Rob Gronkowski makes one of those catches, and Ward reacts fast from the deep middle, going low (and clean), and ending Gronk’s season.
You know, 9% of the time, I’ll trade the range of Rahim Moore for the thunderous hitting of Ward. It gives an offense something extra to think about.
About 7% of the time, Ward played in a robber alignment - lined up halfway between the single high safety and the linebacker level. Usually, it led to Ward supporting in the run game, and I’m presuming that was because the QB read a seven-man box and wanted to run into it.
I think the Broncos may use Ward as a robber more often than the Browns did. That’s because they have a free safety with sideline-to-sideline range in Moore, and a number of talented corners. That leaves Ward free to roam the middle of the field in the intermediate area, and you also get the benefit of having him closer to the run game.
Outside box area and slot
About 31% of the time, Ward aligned near the line of scrimmage, usually to the TE side, but sometimes on the slot. From this alignment, he did a number of different things, most often covering a TE in man coverage, and alternately blitzing, and manning up on a slot WR.
Ward showed pretty good skills in all three activities, and I was honestly most impressed with his instincts for finding holes as a blitzer. His coverage ability is no slouch, either. Remember, as physical is Ward is, he’s 5-10 and 200 pounds, which is pretty much corner-sized.
Linebacker (sub packages)
About 27% of the time, almost always in nickel package situations, Ward lined up as an inside linebacker for the Browns. The clear tendency was that it would be Ward and D’Qwell Jackson along with four defensive linemen and five defensive backs. Effectively, then, their nickel package was a dime package, since Ward is really a DB.
Usually, when Ward played linebacker, he did one of two things – he’d either drop back into the hook zone, or he’d blitz. You could see the offenses (especially Chicago) consistently accounting for him in their protection scheme, by having the running backs key on him while check-releasing. If you can make Chicago think twice about using Matt Forte as a receiver, that’s a huge victory in the game-within-a-game.
Using Ward as a linebacker works because he is legitimately good against the running game. He reads blockers well, can work through traffic, and makes sure tackles.
So if we’re assuming that Nate Irving is suspect as a starting mike linebacker (for the record, I’m emphatically not assuming that), doesn’t the thought of replacing a non-coverage guy with a DB who has linebacker skills assuage that worry?
What excites me is thinking about the defensive personnel combinations you can build around a nickel five of Ware, Von Miller, Ward, Danny Trevathan, and Moore. You want a few ideas?
4-2 Nickel (pass rush)
DE Ware, DT Derek Wolfe, DT Malik Jackson, DE Miller, LB Trevathan, LB Ward, CB Talib, CB Chris Harris, CB Bradley Roby, CB Kayvon Webster, FS Moore
4-2 Nickel (balanced)
DE Ware, DT Terrance Knighton, DT Sylvester Williams, DE Miller, LB Trevathan, LB Ward, CB Talib, CB Harris, CB Roby, SS Duke Ihenacho, FS Moore
DE Ware, NT Williams, DE Wolfe, LB Miller, LB Trevathan, LB Ward, CB Talib, CB Harris, CB Roby, CB Webster, FS Moore
LB Quanterus Smith, DT Williams, DT Knighton, LB Miller, LB Trevathan, LB Lamin Barrow, CB Talib, CB Harris, CB Roby, SS Ward, FS Moore
That’s just four ideas, and I’m sure that Jack Del Rio is going to have a bunch more. When you have a versatile and durable player like Ward, who does several disparate things, it gives a defense a lot of options. Unless Ward suffers some catastrophic injury, I expect that he’ll be a tremendously impactful Bronco.