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Film Study: Why the Broncos defense will be fine without TJ Ward

TJ Ward has been an integral part of the No Fly Zone, but Denver has the depth to replace him.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

News broke this morning that Broncos’ Pro Bowl safety, T.J. Ward had been released. While this may cause a bit of a visceral reaction among fans and players alike, because Ward was a good and very likable player, I’m here to assure you that Denver’s defense will be just fine.

‘How’, you ask? The emergence of Justin Simmons and Will Parks last year, and undrafted free agent, Jamal Carter this preseason. We knew the writing was on the wall for Ward the minute Denver drafted two safeties last year. With an expiring contract and crossing the 30 year old mark, Ward’s time as a Bronco was running out anyway.

While Ward will be missed in the locker room, Denver’s depth and talent at the safety position made him expendable on the field.

Justin Simmons

Last year, in my film breakdown of Justin Simmons, I wrote:

Rookie safety, Justin Simmons, was playing in place of injured T.J. Ward and put together a very solid performance that was his best all season.

Now, Simmons didn’t necessarily replace Ward’s role, as Wade Phillips often had him playing single high FS while Darian Stewart played SS. This is a more natural fit for Simmons and will likely be his role in the future. I could see Stewart shifting to more of a SS when Ward’s contract expires, with Simmons taking over FS duties.

With Ward injured in the preseason, Denver did exactly that, having Justin Simmons play FS (often in single high coverage) with Stewart sliding down into Ward’s strong safety position.

This is a more natural fit for both players and immediately caught my eye as I watched tape of this preseason. The Simmons/Stewart combo has been deadly thus far.

Simmons’ has continued his emergence last year with a strong preseason in limited starter snaps.

Here’s a play that stuck out to me against Green Bay.

One of Green Bay’s favorite plays against a single high safety is to pull him shallow and to one side with routes up the sideline, while Jordy Nelson sneaks in behind with a deep post. Simmons recognizes this and recovers, using his exceptional closing speed to take this away. Even if the ball was placed better, Simmons had caught up to Nelson and was in a position to make a play on the ball.

We saw his closing speed on display against Kansas City last year as well as he intercepted Alex Smith.

Additionally, one of the things Denver gains with Simmons in the lineup over Ward is better man coverage against tight ends. This was an area in which Ward struggled, and Simmons has shown good ability.

Lastly, the biggest concern with losing Ward is run support. While that’s not Simmons’ strongest area due to size, he has shown good instincts and tackling.

Simmons was also the only safety in 2016 with over 200 snaps to never miss a tackle.

I’ve written a lot about Justin Simmons already this offseason as I believe he has potential to be one of Denver’s star players in the future, and while some (see the tweet thread above) are skeptical, I am confident he will fit right in with the No Fly Zone.

Darian Stewart

What’s interesting about this move is that Denver potentially upgrades two positions. I like Stewart better at strong safety where he is closer to the line of scrimmage and free to roam around in coverage over the middle, as opposed to being stuck in single high coverage, a role better suited for Simmons as we’ve seen.

While Stewart was/is an excellent free safety, I think he can be an even better strong safety.

Stewart has already been making plays at strong safety in preseason. As we saw in the very first tweet highlight, he shows great vision to break on routes over the middle and really thrives in the robber role.

Here we see him lining up in that robber role with Simmons in single high deep coverage. You’ll see in the video below that Stewart reads the route perfectly and explodes into the receiver forcing the incompletion.

So far in the preseason, Stewart has stayed in the box and around the line of scrimmage, which indicates how Denver primarily plans to utilize him this year. At 5’11”/215lbs, Stewart has a little more size on Ward, and we know he can lay some hits.

Remember this one?

Get used to seeing more highlights from Stewart this year as he is freed up to fly around and make plays.

Dime Linebacker

The last role left to fill in Ward’s absence is the dime lb role where a safety drops into the box and plays just like a full-time linebacker would.

Denver has utilized this formation as their primary sub package the last two year, with great results. I broke down this formation last year if you want a refresher.

This formation has become more popular in recent years across the NFL as teams look to counter offenses who exploit bigger linebackers in coverage with favorable matchups. I’ll have a whole article on this soon, but suffice it to say, Denver has been on the front edge of this trend and will continue that this year.

Here is a look you will likely see more of this year from Denver.

Green Bay is in 11 personnel with a bunch set, which could easily be a run formation as well as pass, so Denver counters with what looks like a traditional 4-3 alignment, but is actually Darian Stewart, and Will Parks playing “outside linebacker” in this formation.

Which leads me to the gap Ward leaves. He excelled in this dime linebacker role and often lined up just like you see Parks doing in the image above, and was very effective at it. In fact, I wondered if Denver would just reduce Ward’s salary and use him as a full-time LB/S hybrid this year. However, two young safeties look poised to take that role.

Will Parks is likely the first one to get a crack at it as he showed good coverage ability last year filling in at strong safety last year, and also brings some run stopping. He exclusively played this role during the “dress rehearsal” game against Green Bay when the starters were on the field.

Without the All-22 it’s hard to show you his impact, but he looked solid from what I saw. Nothing stuck out as particularly flashy, but nothing was glaring as a weakness either. I think he’ll likely get significant snaps here in the upcoming year.

Jamal Carter

One of the more intriguing prospects this preseason is undrafted safety Jamal Carter. MHR’s Christopher Hart did a great roster breakdown of him during our 90 in 90 roster series.

Carter is a bigger safety at 6’1”/218lbs, which is exactly the size of Atlanta’s Deone Bucannon, the safety who they play as their full-time middle linebacker.

With his play in the preseason and training camp, he has emerged as another great candidate to fill this role, and would be next in a long line of undrafted defenders to contribute in Denver.

Carter has shown good instincts in zone coverage, and has looked very impressive in run support, often taking on offensive linemen and shedding blocks like a linebacker.

Here he is fitting against the run, and taking on a pulling guard. He does his job, fills the gap, and causes the running back to slow down and get stopped in the backfield.

With these young players stepping up, I believe the No Fly Zone is in good hands, and has a better chance of sustaining their dominance over a longer period of time. While fans (myself included) will miss TJ Ward, we shouldn’t fret about the defense’s ability to remain elite.