Browns strong safety TJ Ward has been making his presence felt as of late, but could have his gloved hands very full this Sunday when the team travels to San Francisco to take on the 49ers. Tasked with the dual-hat duty of run support while occasionally dropping back in pass coverage, Ward will have the opportunity to not only help contain running back Frank Gore but also two of the Niners’ biggest receiving weapons in tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
Gore is averaging 5.0 yards per carry and has reached pay dirt four times, though fumbling just as many times, in six contests. Of the eight touchdowns achieved through the air by the 5-1 49ers, six have landed in the hands of one of their tight ends. The perfect recipe for play-action passes, Cleveland’s Ward will be handed the not-so-easy job of ensuring that he doesn’t bite on the fake handoffs, leaving the rest of his defensive backs to pick up the slack with a pair of streaking receiving options.
“It’s important that you’re very disciplined playing the run,” said head coach Pat Shurmur on Thursday afternoon. Then with the run comes the play action. He’s one of those guys that studies so if there are any keys or indicators there that he’ll find to help him be a step closer on a pass as well a couple feet closer making a tackle, I’m sure he’ll get that.”
Unfortunately, the last time the Browns faced a team with a combination of a top-flight running back and ultra athletic tight end, the defense was torched for several big plays and a loss thanks to Matt Hasselbeck and the Tennessee Titans. A pair of touchdown passes in that very contest came via the tight end with Ward being the closest guy to the ball on the first of the two.
Though criticized earlier this season for an apparent lack of impact, Ward is coming off of back-to-back contests that have seen him accrue 15 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble – the latter two being coupled for one of the biggest plays of the team’s 6-3 win over the Seahawks last Sunday. Hindered by a bit of a hamstring issue out of the gate without a training camp to work out the kinks, Ward has been all over the field ever since, playing whichever role is asked of him by defensive coordinator Dick Jauron and doing so at a very high level.
Two weeks ago against Oakland, Ward was forced to compensate a bit for the absence of teammate and frequent mid-air hip bumper Joe Haden. With the future Pro Bowl cornerback returning agains the Seahawks, Ward was able to play closer to the line of scrimmage, helping make up for the then-injured Scott Fujita.
“[On Sunday], I saw a guy that was very active,” said Shurmur. “I saw a guy that challenged, he made a couple plays on balls and I saw a guy too that was very physical making tackles. I saw a very, very solid game from a safety in this league.”
Not to tip my hand for tomorrow’s “Browns Will Win If…” post, but this one should be universal: This upcoming contest will be the true test for Ward’s progress as a professional football player. With both Haden and Fujita back, Ward will be able to do what he does best by attacking the opposition from various spots on the field. His impact on the game will be integral in keeping the game close, and his awareness on the run-versus-pass recognition will be monument in the overall play of the NFL’s fourth-ranked defensive unit.