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Tales from the Tape: Justin Simmons, the do-it-all defensive back, is looking good this preseason

The versatile defender is poised for a Pro Bowl year in his third season with the Denver Broncos.

Chicago Bears v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Regular season play is nearly here!

The time we have been waiting patiently for is almost upon us! But what shall we do to entertain ourselves until then? There’s plenty to talk about from a roster construction standpoint as the fourth preseason game approaches and the bubble players vie for a few final spots on the 53-man roster, but I want to focus on the guys whose roster spots are not only safe, but are poised to make a big impact for the Denver Broncos in 2018.

So, I’m slightly altering my usual “Tale of the Tape” series to bring you short, bite-sized breakdowns from the preseason, leading up to the NFL’s Week 1 kickoff.

First up is one of my favorite Broncos: Justin Simmons.

To me Simmons embodies exactly what you need in a modern NFL defender. He’s athletic, smart, and highly versatile - the last one perhaps being the most important.

I have talked for awhile this off-season about how Simmons needs to be moved down to more of a roaming match-up safety, while Darian Stewart needs to go back up high as the traditional free safety. I was a bit disappointed when Simmons played the first two preseason games mostly up high as a free safety.

However, in the “dress rehearsal” third preseason game, when the team is actually game-planning and implementing some of the schemes they’ll employ in the regular season, we began to see Denver’s plan for Simmons unfold. They played Simmons exactly where he should be played - everywhere.

I dug into the snap count from Friday night’s game and Simmons had 33 total snaps. Here is where he lined up for those:

  • In the Box - 12 snaps
  • Single high - 11 snaps
  • Slot - 5
  • Two high - 5

Simmons had a nearly even split of snaps at the “free safety” and “strong safety” spots and spent some time covering the slot as well. This is a perfect use of his skillset, using him as a Swiss Army knife all over the field as the match-ups dictate.

If you’re worried how Simmons held up in the box in run support, don’t be.

Simmons is gap sound, a sure tackler, and not afraid to stick his nose in there in the running game. He took on Adrian Peterson, who ran very well Friday night, several times and helped make key stops.

Above, he matches up in the hole against a wide receiver who attempts to lead block, and Simmons absolutely blows this play up, forcing Peterson outside into the waiting arms of Bradley Chubb. This one won’t show up on the stat sheet as anything, but this play is made because of Simmons.

The next one is Simmons crashing down upon reading run, and making the tackle himself for a one yard gain. We are limited on preseason footage so it’s not the best angle, but you can clearly see Simmons’ decisiveness and tenacity playing around the line scrimmage. If you can’t tell, he’s the guy holding onto the running back after the pile clears.

Not bad for a guy who can also kick out and man up in the slot. Speaking of which.

This was a look Denver implemented occasionally, and I think we’ll see them go to it quite frequently depending on the match-up.

Denver is in their base defense, but Simmons drops down into the slot to man up the receiver. This particular time, the offense is in 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 TE) so Chris Harris is actually free/covering the tight end on the far side, but they have used this against 11 personnel as well.

This can be especially effective against teams that like to run out of 11 personnel as it allows Denver to keep their run stoppers on the field and have a full box, but also match-up well across the board against the wide receivers. Wade Phillips ran a version of this a few times with Roby, Talib, and Harris in a base package with only one safety. This is essentially that with Simmons functioning as the slot corner.

This play he isn’t lined up in the slot, but he’ll end up covering a crossing receiver. He’s playing essentially as a linebacker here in the box. Simmons shows his play recognition and awareness as he communicates with the secondary, calling out assignments after the ball has been snapped, and then blankets the short crosser on 3rd down.

Lastly, my favorite play of the preseason.

This play just blew me away and almost deserves its own separate breakdown.

Denver’s struggles against tight ends and running backs have been well documented by myself and others here. One of the biggest issues covering backs out of the backfield is that the defender is flat-footed since he is waiting for the back to come to him, and the back also has a two-way go, meaning they can break either direction.

Quick outs and flat routes are easy money and easy YAC for offenses, so defenders have to be watching for those all the time. Both Will Parks and Brandon Marshall were burned for touchdowns on these routes last year.

As a result, the Texas route, where backs start outside, then break inside is even harder for a linebacker or a safety to stop as they often over-commit to the outside route. We saw Todd Davis give up a touchdown on this very route last year.

Which is why Simmons not only stopping this route, but jumping it for a pick is so impressive. Check this out above. He should be beat on this route, which is why the quarterback anticipates and throws it.

He goes from running hard towards the numbers to cutoff the outside, to flipping his hips and changing direction in an instant after recognizing the route, and jumping it for an interception. That’s special.

It’s actually very reminiscent of Su’a Cravens’ pick on the exact same route in 2016 that I was so impressed with.

If Denver can get both of these guys on the field together and continue to unleash Simmons in a variety of ways, they should be much better off not only against running backs and tight ends, but in the passing game in general.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Simmons can be a top 2 or 3 defender for Denver this coming season.

Next up, we’ll take a look at Emmanuel Sanders and where he has been lining up. Stay tuned! Also, let me know in the comments if there’s a player or particular aspect you would like me to look at over the next week leading up to Week 1.