ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Josey Jewell was drafted in the fourth round because he was a very good college football player at Iowa, a tackling machine who was one of the best inside linebackers in the nation by the time he finished his fourth season as a starter and third as a captain.
He wasn’t drafted in rounds one, two or three because it took him 4.82 seconds to finish his 40.
After a couple of up-and-down years to figure out how to compensate, Jewell has regained his place as a starter and near every-down player for the Broncos in no small part because he has considerably improved his ability to play in space.
He is not just plugging gaps between the tackles – the strength of his game – he is sacking the quarterback, closely covering the running back and tight end, and tackling to the boundaries.
There has been no buzz about Jewell getting faster, even he is still six weeks shy of his 26th birthday on Christmas Day. So as he prepares to relay play calls from coach Vic Fangio to the Broncos’ huddle on Sunday for their game against the high-powered Las Vegas Raiders offense (kickoff is at 2:05 p.m.), how has Jewell been getting there for double-digit tackles each of his past two games?
“I think most of it is understanding of the defense,’’ he said in a sit-down interview with 9News last week. “Especially now, being in the second year of the defense, Coach Fangio’s defense, especially. You understand where your leverage is, you understand where your help is. And you feel more comfortable with it.
“I think it’s like any other defense. The more you practice it, the better you are at it. I’ve really taken this offseason to get to know it better, and then once you know the defense more, it’s going to allow you to play faster and not to think as much. This year it’s been a lot less thinking for me and a lot more just running around.”
Knowing a defense helps Jewell anticipate where the play is going. And knowing where the play is going before it happens helps a player get there faster. It’s why straight-line, 40 speed is often considered overrated.
It’s not how fast a player is. It’s how fast he gets there.
“I would say it’s a little bit anticipation,’’ Jewell said. “Understanding where my help is and I can maybe lean one way or the other. But also understanding what gaps are closed off by the D-line and where the safeties are filling. Just more understanding of the game.”
Unlike most defensive systems that remove an inside linebacker in favor an extra safety or cornerback in sub packages, Fangio’s scheme keeps his two inside linebackers in pretty much every play.
Alexander Johnson, who leads the team with 64 tackles through eight games, has missed just one of 557 defensive snaps this year. Jewell, who is second with 57 tackles and closing, has missed less than five snaps a game.
“I think keeping two linebackers, especially in nickel, makes the opposing team not want to run the ball as much,’’ Jewell said. “You think about it, maybe you get a smaller body in there, maybe one linebacker and a safety, a lot of offensive coordinators maybe see that and want to run the ball more. Now, when they see two linebackers in there, there’s a little hesitation, hopefully, that they think we’re going to have those gaps closed off.”
His playing time is notable considering Jewell got Wally Pipp’d last season.
“I’ve heard of (the Pipp) expression a little bit,’’ he said in reference to the former Yankee first baseman who, legend has it, sat out a game with headache, only for Lou Gehrig to replace him and play the next 2,130 consecutive games.
After leading the team with a whopping 14 tackles in a season-opening loss at Oakland, Jewell suffered a hamstring injury in week 3 and sat out week 4 in which the Denver defense got trampled by then-Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette for 190 second-half rushing yards.
By the time Jewell returned, Johnson was inserted into his place and immediately became an inspiring, ferocious defender. Jewell spent the rest of his second season relegated mostly to special teams until the Broncos released four-year starter Todd Davis prior to this season, primarily for financial reasons.
“I was always hoping I was (going to get back on field),’’ Jewell said. “It was kind of hard to swallow right away. But after I understood what was going on I had to go out there every day and prove myself over and over again. If I got back out there, that’d be awesome, but I’m going to work my butt off to do that.
“And luckily during this offseason and early this season, I got another opportunity to show ‘em what I could do on the field. And really just stayed positive the whole time and just keep on working, don’t ever put your head down.”
Discipline is another one of Jewell’s characteristics, which he summons on and off the field. The coronavirus has spiked again to alarming levels through the Denver-area and the Broncos themselves. Besides a couple players, coaches and staff who have been hit with the virus, the Broncos’ top two executives, general manager John Elway and CEO and president Joe Ellis, tested positive two weeks ago.
“I’m not too nervous about it,’’ Jewell said. “But the only thing I do is come into the facility, and work out and practice every day, go to meetings and then I go straight home. There’s really nothing else I do. I don’t go out to eat. My wife and I understand it’s probably not a good idea to do that. So really all we do is me going back and forth to the facility, maybe her going to get some groceries, so no, not too nervous with our daily schedule and how we go about it.”
He’ll have to be of sharp body and mind today as the Raiders offense is considerably better than the one Jewell saw his first two years. Head coach and offensive play caller Jon Gruden appears synced up with quarterback Derek Car. Running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller are two of the best at their position, and there is the usual speed at the receiver and size at the offensive line positions.
The Broncos are 3-5, the Raiders are 5-3.
“They’ve got a pretty dang-good offense,’’ Jewell said. “They’ve got some big guys up front. They’ve got some great running backs and some great third-down running backs (former Bronco Devontae Booker), too, to be able to move the ball around. And then their tight ends are good.
“I mean they can run, they can get you out in space. And the quarterback has been in the system for a while now. He understands his reads and he definitely takes advantage of that. So they’re a good-looking offense. We’re going to have to stay with our details and stay with what we know and I think we’ll be fine.”
Josey of a Jewell
Year ... G ... GS ... Tkl ... Sk
2018 ... 16 ... 9 ..... 51 ... 0.0
2019 ... 15 ... 3 ..... 34 ... 1.5
2020 ..... 8 ... 8 ..... 57 ... 2.0
Total ... 39 ... 20 ... 142 ... 3.5
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