ENGLEWOOD—Built with the long, lean frame of a small-college shooting guard, Justin Simmons doesn’t have the look a good, NFL tackler.
Yet, if he’s not the best at making the open-field tackle among Denver Broncos, he’s by far made the most of them. In his first season as a starting safety, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound Simmons is second on the team with 61 tackles.
Only inside linebacker Brandon Marshall has more with 76 tackles, with most of his coming within the confined areas of the defensive box.
Simmons makes many of his tackles when there is nobody else around him. Impressive, considering a couple years into his stay at Boston College, Simmons couldn’t tackle a lick.
“When I was a freshman and sophomore at BC, tackling was huge for us because we were a big, man team,’’ Simmons said Friday at his locker. “So, a lot of times you’d be one-on-one in the open field, you’d have to make a tackle.
“And I was terrible. I was probably the worst tackler in the whole college league.’’
Was he playing cornerback then?
“Corner, safety. I was in-and-out,’’ he said. “But just terrible. Absolutely terrible. My film was absolutely terrible. But long story short, I had this really intense talk with my defensive coordinator Don Brown at the time, going into my junior season, saying things like: “If you don’t improve this spring, I can’t play you.’’
“I was going to be a junior and all we had was younger guys. So, it wasn’t like I would have been able to play the next year. It was either I made the progress or I didn’t. That’s really where it improved from.’’
More tackling lessons came during his rookie year of 2016 from veteran Broncos safeties T.J. Ward, the player Simmons would replace a year later, and Darian Stewart.
“I mean those guys are great open-field tacklers, great tacklers and hard hitters and they gave me some coaching points, too, because it’s a lot different in the league,’’ Simmons said. “Everyone’s fast and it’s a cutback league. There’s so many little intricacies to pick up on so those guys helped me out a lot too.’’
There were a couple games this year when Simmons was arguably the best Bronco defensive player on the field. He had 11 tackles in a 23-10 loss to the New York Giants, and 10 tackles, plus a sack, in a 41-16 loss to New England.
Then again, in each of those games the Broncos were hurt by the tight end in the passing game: Evan Engram of the Giants and Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett of the Patriots.
“If there’s been any (flaw) on this defense that’s hurt us the most it’s probably been tight ends and backs,’’ Simmons said. “We take that personally, even if we are in zone, or we’re not covering the guy that did score, I mean, we take that personally because we know a lot of teams aren’t going to throw to Chris (Harris Jr.) and Aqib (Talib) nine times out of 10, or even Robe (Bradley Roby). We know it’s going to come down to the safeties and backers making plays on tight ends and backs.
“There’s been stints where we’ve done really well with that. And then there’s been stints where we’ve done extremely poor. I know personally and with other safeties we take that to heart. That’s something we’re constantly improving on and working on technique-wise, day-in and day-out.’’
The decision by Broncos’ general manager John Elway to release Ward prior to the season opener didn’t sit well with many defensive veterans. And while Ward’s fiery personality has been missed, the truth is Simmons has been a better player.
Ward has just 29 tackles in nine games for Tampa Bay and coverage was never the strongest part of his game.
Simmons was among the defensive players who voiced support of Ward during the end of preseason. But once the veteran was cut, Simmons tightened up his shoulder pads and set out to play to the standard Ward reached in his prime.
“I was one of the first one to say I didn’t want him to go,’’ Simmons said. “Just because it was another Pro Bowl safety to learn under for another year, or however long he was going to be here. Obviously, that would have helped my career out tremendously.
“But I had the utmost confidence in myself as well and when we parted ways with T.J. -- although I’m not T.J., I’m my own player -- I trusted in my abilities that I had to come in and make plays and I had to do my job and be in the right position at the right time. I know there was a lot of pressure on me in that aspect but no one can put more pressure on me than myself. And the expectations I have, and still have, for myself at the safety position. All in all, I’m thankful for this opportunity and the many people that have helped me both inside and outside of this locker room.’’