ENGLEWOOD—T.J. Ward is here and not there and for that he is grateful.
Ward is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season as the Denver Broncos’ a strong safety, a year after he played a significant part in their Super Bowl title.
His former team, the Cleveland Browns, are 0-7 heading into their game today against the New York Jets.
“Every time they’re mentioned, I’m thankful I got the opportunity to come here to play in Denver,’’ Ward said in an interview this week with 9NEWS. “Because, man, that organization is going through some things. And they have been. It does look like they’re on the right path.’’
Maybe. Paul DePodesta, who brought Moneyball to Major League Baseball, is now in charge of the Browns’ front-office strategy. Analytics may not have spotted a guy like Ward, who is not that big at 5-foot-11, 2000 and didn’t start but a few games in high school.
From that body type and background, Ward has become a two-time Pro Bowler and this year is leading the Broncos in tackles with 42.
“Unfortunately a lot of guys in this sport get counted out because they don’t have the exact measurable,’’ Ward said in an interview with 9NEWS this week. “I’ll tell you one thing I’ve played with a lot of guys that didn’t have the exact measurables and were 10 times better than guys with the perfect size, speed, strength, height and all that.
“That’s the beautiful thing about this sport: If you’re a football player it doesn’t matter how big, small, what size you are, it doesn’t matter. You just got to have heart. One of the smallest guys on our team is the toughest in E (Emmanuel Sanders). You see him going in and catching balls between three or four guys. He’s not the fastest – he doesn’t run a 4.3 – and he’s definitely not the biggest dude but he’s a student of his craft. He practices day in and day out.’’
Ward, 29, is coming off one of his best games in his three years with the Broncos. Against the Houston Texans on Monday night, he was the only Bronco to play all 70 defensive snaps. He had a team-high 8 tackles, 2 pass deflections and one hit on a quarterback. He also helped fellow safety Darian Stewart cause Houston running back Alfred Blue to fumble.
“The thing T.J. has done that nobody understands, he really had to change his role,’’ said Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak. “When we lost (Justin) Simmons, we had some things going on. T.J. is a guy that had to play a lot of different spots. You ask certain guys to do special things and he is a special player. He is really having a good year.’’
Ward is a strong safety by official position, but he also lines up in the “box” where he is essentially an inside linebacker, and other sub packages have him dropping back to deep center where he becomes a free safety.
“He’s a great guy to have for a coach because he can do everything,’’ said Broncos’ defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. “He can rush, he can blitz, he can be a blitz guy or he can cover. He can tackle, he can play the run and he can blitz in the running game. He does all of those things for us so he’s a tremendous player.”
It’s that kind of versatility – and maniacal play – that has Ward playing with a style similar to one of the best strong safeties in NFL history. The more you watch Ward, the more you see former Pittsburgh Steeler great Troy Polamalu.
“I’ll take it. I definitely take that,’’ Ward said. “We played in the same division (for four) years, I think, and I wore 43 so we kind of got some comparisons. But hey, that’s a Hall of Fame player. Great dude, great guy. It’s a great compliment.’’
Of all the tasks Ward has as a strong safety, is hitting his favorite?
“It used to be,’’ he said with a smile. “But it’s getting the least and least favorite the older I get. Got to take care of this body, but it definitely comes natural. It’s an instinctive thing that I have in me and I’m blessed to have. I definitely use it as one of the best parts of my game.’’