We knew the No Fly Zone wouldn’t stay together forever. Denver’s been planning for this inevitability as well. It doesn’t make it sting any worse, but it does help to know that this has been part of the plan for some time, and Denver fans can find comfort that the team will still field a talented secondary in 2018.
Regardless of if you are on board with Talib leaving, or hate it with a burning passion, the question now becomes, where do we go from here?
The original No Fly Zone couldn't last forever.— Sayre Bedinger (@SayreBedinger) March 9, 2018
Aqib Talib: 32
T.J. Ward: 31
Bradley Roby: 25
Justin Simmons: 24
Fortunately, Denver had a dress rehearsal this past season when Aqib Talib was suspended.
Unfortunately, rookie corner, Brendan Langley, was routinely picked on in relief of Talib and looked unready to assume a significant role without further refining (he has only been playing defense for a few years).
However, Denver adjusted and created an effective secondary combination in their next game without Talib, against Miami. I dug in to take a closer look at this game.
Here’s what it looked like:
Miami is in 11 personnel (1 RB/1 TE/3 WRs), which is the new “base” look for offenses.
Bradley Roby and Chris Harris are lined up on each outside receiver, Will Parks and Darian Stewart are the two deep safeties, Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall are the two linebackers. The wrinkle, which I’ve highlighted in red is Justin Simmons lined up in man coverage over the slot receiver.
He would actually play the entire game exclusively in the slot.
So how did he fare? Pretty darn good, actually. Aside from one play he’d love to have back (which we’ll look at), he allowed two catches for 16 yards, and had himself an interception returned for a touchdown.
The play is made by Roby here on the short route, but watch Simmons carrying his receiver stride for stride on the seam route.
Denver often had him play up close to the line and jam the receiver as we see here.
His speed and instincts were on display with this interception while covering Kenny Stills in the slot.
Now, there were obviously some struggles. Here he allows a first down against one of the more productive slot receivers in the league, Jarvis Landry.
The one play he would like to have back, and will learn from was an excellent out and up route by Kenny Stills working from the slot. Landry runs the post which occupies the free safety, so it is 1-on-1 and Simmons bites on the fake.
Overall, for never playing the position, Simmons did very well. Now hear me clearly: I am NOT advocating that Simmons switch to cornerback to replace Talib. At all. I am more so pointing out the options and talent Denver has in the secondary.
Simmons in a matchup/slot safety role allows Denver some flexibility to slowly bring along a guy like Brendan Langley, or a drafted corner, with less than 50% of the snaps, as opposed to throwing either one of them into the fire right away.
While Justin Simmons playing some slot can help, the man tasked with directly replacing Talib’s role is Bradley Roby. While there was some inconsistency in Roby’s play, and he still has a tendency to give up more big plays than I would like to see, Roby’s game took a major step forward last year, in my opinion.
Bradley Roby made some of his best plays on 3rd down this year. pic.twitter.com/hZ6ZwMzb5S— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) March 11, 2018
He showed up in big games against some of the top competition, and played particularly well on 3rd downs.
Often against some of the best competition too. 3rd and 5 here against one of the best 3rd down teams in the league. pic.twitter.com/3e2EdvUmXq— Jeffrey Essary (@JeffreyEssary) March 11, 2018
In the Miami game, with Talib out, Roby had perhaps his best game of the season, shutting down the outside and racking up several pass breakups and a forced fumble.
And in case anyone has forgotten about Chris Harris Jr., he’s still pretty good, too.
While there are still some questions to be answered in the secondary, and Miami isn’t necessarily a prolific offense, I think we saw from the small sample last year that Denver can still be pretty darn effective without Talib. Each one of Harris, Roby, and Simmons were responsible for a turnover, and look to continue to be playmakers in the secondary.
We’ll continue to dig into this topic over the course of the off-season, but for now, Denver fans can relax a little as the No Fly Zone is still in good, albeit younger and less experienced, hands.