Through little fault of their own, safety is one of the most tricky positions for casual fans to appreciate in the modern NFL. On the Sunday broadcast they aren’t always in the frame because they’re often playing over the top of the defense. This is especially true with the Broncos under Fangio, as they utilize more two deep looks than the average NFL defense.
So while most will tell you Justin Simmons broke out in a big way and grew into a top notch safety in his first season under the Broncos’ defensive mastermind, many will struggle to explain how or why. His tackle numbers were better in 2018, after all. He only had one more pick last season. Did he really improve?
In a word: yes.
Who is Justin Simmons?
A third round pick from Boston College in 2016, Justin Simmons became a starting safety when Elway surprised Broncos’ Country by cutting T.J. Ward days before the regular season in 2017. Since then he has played in 45 out of a possible 48 games including almost 100% of the defensive snaps the last two seasons.
2019 was his first under Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell in a 3-4 defense that based out of zone match and two high shells. It was a rather large change from former coordinator Joe Woods’ man heavy single high defense. While Simmons’ primary position remained safety, his role changed as he took on additional coverage responsibilities.
What does Simmons do well?
Standing a shade over 6’2”, Simmons has very good height for a safety and his long arms show up all over his 2019 tape. He displays very good athletic ability with good quickness, agility, balance, and explosiveness. He shows good play strength and can effectively gather to deliver a wallop to bigger players at just 202 lbs or stand up to bully ball receivers in coverage.
Simmons displays very good competitive toughness and he was instrumental to the defenses performance in a number of tight situations such as the goal line stand against the Jaguars and a 3rd and short stop to ice a win against the Cleveland Browns.
One area where I noticed growth from Simmons’ 2019 is his mental processing, where he was elite in 2019. Across his tape are plays where he’s reading the opponents route as quickly as the opposing passer is, which helped him to reach his assignment more quickly and be more disruptive. Studying his 2018 tape last summer I came to the conclusion that Joe Woods and Vance Joseph put too much on his plate by asking him to take on a variety of positions and assignments. By locking him in at safety across 16 games, Fangio helped him to play faster and his down-to-down consistency made a drastic leap as a result.
Simmons became a very good run defender in 2019. When he rotates into the box he understands how to leverage his gap and plays bigger than his weight when taking on blockers and ball carriers near the line of scrimmage. He stayed under control and kept his eyes up when working the backside of runs, which helped him to prevent cutbacks and also presented opportunities to chase backs down from behind.
The 5th year safety is a solid open field tackler who understands angles and leverage and does a good job bringing down opponents when he keeps his weight under him.
The area where Simmons made the biggest jump under Fangio was against the pass, where he became one of the best safeties in all of football. He’s an elite coverage defender and looks like a cornerback when asked to mirror his opponent in close quarters. Whether the receiver was a 260 lb tight end or a 200 lb burner, he stuck like glue without getting grabby. He displays very good ball skills, using a combination of patience, anticipation, and length to attack the ball. It’s no coincidence that 2019 was Simmons’ career year in passes defensed as he showed a knack for punching at receivers’ hands as they tried to secure receptions.
Simmons has very good range because he has such a strong grasp of his responsibility and the threat being posed to him, which allows him to play faster than his solid long speed.
What are Simmons’ weaknesses?
At 202 lbs Simmons is a bit light for a safety and can be overpowered by offensive linemen when he’s met in the box or second level. Across the games I watched, I noticed Simmons will still miss open field tackles on bigger backs if he comes in without squaring up, such as the Jaguars game against Leonard Fournette.
This isn’t necessarily a personal weakness, but through the games I watched I did notice a few plays where opposing coordinators manipulated Fangio’s defense to occupy Simmons and exploit other defenders. This was clearly apparent on the touchdown pass to John Brown in the Buffalo Bills game.
On the play above, Simmons’ first responsibility is to take the number two vertical threat to his side of the field. Because the Bills’ offensive coordinator uses his inside slot receiver to threaten vertically, Simmons can’t rotate over to help Chris Harris Jr. on John Brown’s double move until it’s far too late.
Plays like this didn’t just occur in the passing game either. Andy Reid exploited Simmons’ pass responsibilities in order to convert a short yardage situation in the first Chiefs’ game last year as well.
On first glance it may appear that Simmons made a huge gaffe by sliding out of his gap. After all, Patrick Mahomes doesn’t have the ball and it’s 3rd and 1, so the immediate threat is a run up the gut. In the split second of the play, however, Simmons has to respect the threat the back presents and Kansas City gets a first down because of it. It was a pretty savvy decision by Reid. After all, check out what happens when he doesn’t utilize the passing threat later in the game:
It’s worth noting that some of the above plays are inevitable in the NFL. Offensive coordinators are too smart and too good in today’s game to consistently blank. My personal hope is that a second year in the Fangio defense and some growth from Simmons’ teammates will allow for more disguises and subterfuge from down-to-down. With chess pieces like Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Alexander Johnson,and Von Miller, the potential is there for big plays.
There is no doubt in my mind that Justin Simmons has blossomed into one of the best safeties in the NFL under Vic Fangio. The combination of his jump in processing and a better system to utilize his talents led to a career year in 2019. Still just 26, there’s reason to believe the best is yet to come.
John Elway should have done whatever it took to extend him last season. Now that Simmons is on the franchise tag, the hope has to be that an extension is reached. He’s an elite player, as well as an asset in the locker room and community. If Elway doesn’t retain him past 2020, it will be the biggest mistake he’s made since Paxton Lynch.