How the Denver Broncos Are Using TJ Ward as Defensive Chess Piece

Cecil Lammey@@cecillammeyContributor ISeptember 24, 2014

DENVER, CO - AUGUST 07:  Strong safety T.J. Ward #43 of the Denver Broncos stands on the field during a pause in the game against the Seattle Seahawks during preseason action at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on August 7, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos were quite active in free agency earlier this year. The language of the NFL is money, and the Broncos spoke loudly and often when the free-agency period began. No statement is bolder than their first move right out of the gate.

The Broncos added T.J. Ward to change the identity of their defense. They needed more toughness on the defensive side of the ball, and that’s why Ward was an early target. Already this season, Ward is making a huge impact for the Broncos.

#Broncos T.J. Ward is tied for 4th in #NFL with 220 defensive snaps played in 2014...tied with teammate Brandon Marshall

— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) September 24, 2014

Ward looks forward to playing every snap.

“I’m used to playing every snap. I’ve played pretty much, probably most of the snaps my whole career, so it’s nothing new," he said. "I’m not going to lie, getting used to the altitude has been a little bit more difficult. But I’m going to get in better shape throughout the season.”

However, he does not feel he needs those snaps for early conditioning. “I don’t think it’s an exact importance to it. It’s just something that I’m doing. I’m playing dime and safety, so I’m pretty much playing two positions. But it’s something that I knew I was going to do coming in and what they expected me to do, and it just happens that I’m on the field all the time.”

Ward does not like coming off the field. “I really don’t like coming off the field because every play you’re on the field, you have an opportunity to make a play and I feel if I’m off the field, that’s one less opportunity I have.”

The Broncos are giving Ward many opportunities to make plays for this defense—and for good reason. He’s tough, versatile, has a nose for the ball, is a good open-field tackler and he can cover.

Let’s take a look at how the Broncos are using Ward in many different ways.

Strong Safety

Ward is one of the best strong safeties in the league today. He’s big enough and strong enough to play close to the line of scrimmage as an enforcer against the run. Ward is also quick and fast enough to turn and cover receivers and tight ends if need be.

In this picture, we see Ward shadowing wide receiver Percy Harvin as he goes in motion before the snap. Not only on this play, but on multiple plays against the Seahawks we saw Ward spy on Harvin.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Ward commented on covering Harvin. “It’s all about containing. You don’t want to let him get to the edges where he can run free. You want to get somebody who can contain the edges and tackle well. That’s how you do that.” Ward concluded, “It’s simple. It’s easier said than done, but once you do it, it’s simple.”

Linebacker

In certain sub-packages, the Broncos can use Ward as a linebacker. This was first suggested by general manager John Elway after the team signed Ward in free agency. This team has been missing a quality middle linebacker for years, and Elway suggested the team could use Ward there in nickel packages.

In the picture below, we see Ward lined up essentially as a strong-side linebacker. This reveals where Ward is in the team’s nickel package. With Ward lined up over the tight end, the Broncos are going with a single-high safety look with Rahim Moore lined up deep.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

This was a run play up the gut by Marshawn Lynch. While Ward didn’t make the tackle, he did keep containment, making sure to haze Lynch to the inside.

Blitzing

Ward has the closing burst and nose for the ball to effectively get after the quarterback. He posted his second sack of the season in the first half against the Seahawks to give him a new career single-season high.

This picture shows Ward lined up in the box before the snap. He’s showing blitz before the snap, and that’s what he does.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Ward gets his pads into backup running back Robert Turbin. He’s able to power his way around the young runner with ease.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

He gets to Wilson before he even has a chance to go through progressions fully. Ward rarely takes false steps in pursuit, and he has good closing burst when the quarterback is in his sights.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Coverage

There aren’t many players as versatile as Ward at the strong safety position. He can play dime cornerback, linebacker and safety for the Broncos defense—and he excels in all three roles.

In this picture, we see Ward lined up in the box. Wilson tosses the ball to Ricardo Lockette, and the wide receiver is looking to pass. Ward reacts quickly and promptly covers athletic tight end Zach Miller as he runs a route to the deep middle of the field.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

NFL.com - Game Rewind

This play shows Ward covering Miller as he runs to his left after the snap.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Miller then immediately turns quickly on a jerk route to the outside and his right. Ward initially slips when he changes direction as Miller looks to get open.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

As you can see here, Miller is preparing to catch the ball with a three-yard cushion between him and Ward.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

However, as he turns after the catch, Ward is there to stop him. In the time it took to catch and turn, Ward made up the distance and arrived at the play with natural violence.

NFL.com - Game Rewind

Summary

The Broncos made several moves in free agency, but none has had a larger impact than Ward. The team wanted the veteran safety to create more of a badass attitude on defense.

Ward knows the reason why he was sought after by this team. “They didn’t bring me in just for one team," he said. "It’s for every game—playoffs and beyond. It’s the same preparation, and we’re going about it steadily and as professionals.”

The Broncos are once again Super Bowl contenders in 2014. In order to get back to the big game, Denver needs the defense to play better than it did last year.

Ward knows the goals in mind for this team are within reach. “We’ve found what we want to be. I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet, but we’ve got a goal in mind and we’re working towards it every week, and I think we’re getting better. Some things we need to correct and fix, but that’s only going to come with time.” Ward continued, “We have a bunch of new guys on this defense and the cohesion is not all the way there yet. But it’s coming along, and I feel we’ve improved every week.”

Ward’s nickname is “boss” because of his nasty attitude on the field. He’s an intimidating presence on the Broncos defense, and in three weeks he has clearly shown why there’s a new boss in town.

All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos unless otherwise noted.

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