One season ago, Cleveland Browns strong safety TJ Ward was a skull-cracking, open field-tackling, Dawg Pound riling rookie. Seemingly all over the field, the second-round draft pick out of Oregon led the Browns in tackles, was present for nearly every snap and single-handedly embarrassed any wannabe GM who was ranting, albeit without substance or support, about the team passing on USC’s Taylor Mays during the 2010 NFL Draft.
Fast forward one season later and Ward is not only allowing wide receivers to keep their helmets on straight and in one piece, but he’s so Copperfield-esque that he can’t even get as much as a line item in a recent post about a solid defensive effort against the Oakland Raiders.
Or is he?
During his rookie campaign, Ward was a juggernaut – a hard-hitting, high-motored kid who earned nicknames like Psych Ward for providing a physical style of play for which fans had longed since the days of the original Dawg Pound. He was also the strong safety in Rob Ryan’s unorthodox 3-4 scheme which allowed him to be a featured run-stopper in the box. Almost a hybrid of his father’s infamous Chicago Bears 46 defense, Ryan’s penchant for moving players around allowed Ward to typically find himself on the inside shoulder of a defensive end, essentially making him a fifth linebacker.
This move was beneficial for a multitude of reasons. Not only is tackling and run-stopping right in Ward’s wheelhouse, but the Browns were also one of the only teams in modern history to run a 3-4 defense when their linebacking corps was considered a weakness. D’Qwell Jackson – the NFL leader in tackles two seasons earlier – was gone for the season; new additions Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita played in the 4-3 with their former teams; Kaluka Maiava, Jason Trusnik and Matt Roth were names which were not exactly found on the league’s list of the most-sold jerseys at the NFL team shop.
While Gocong is the proud owner of that shiny new contract, and Fujita gets a jersey with the 60-font “C” on the right shoulder, it is Jackson who is not only back to leading the team in tackles (he’s among the top-10 in the NFL) and adding hardware to his mantle, but it’s DQ52 who is bolstering a Browns defense that is presently seventh in the league in yards-per-game. As much as Ward’s contributions were appreciated last season, rarely does a team want a defensive back to be leading the team in tackles.
Now, if we were to say that said defensive back was tied for second on the team in tackles, this is a lot more acceptable. It would also be fact when considering the 2011 Cleveland Browns as Ward trails only the abovementioned Jackson in opponent takedowns. While some may want to consider this “quiet” or a “regression” from last season, once we factor in how Dick Jauron is using Ward in his schemes, the fact that the team’s strong safety has as many tackles as the team’s defensive captain becomes even more remarkable.
Those disappointed in Ward’s season thus far have legitimate beef when factoring a few of the big plays which have haunted the Browns to this point. The Cedric Benson run that put the Bengals up for good was through a hole which should have likely been occupied by Ward. The first touchdown in the Tennessee game, Ward wound up being the man chasing tight end Craig Stevens into the corner, but this may or may not have been his man (or area of the field) to defend.
Aside from the tight end-fueled debacle against Tennessee, a game in which the Browns destroyed the Titans in terms of time of possession, thus not allowing for many opportunities for the strong safety to rack up tackles – the arbitrary guague by which we have apparently decided how much of an “impact” a player is making on defense – Ward’s number has been all over the field. Perhaps not in a ball-hawk-type sense, but with Dick Jauron now calling the plays for his 11 men, No. 43 has bee featured as a pass-rusher, a pseudo linebacker as well as the last line of defense in pass coverage.
From this past Sunday’s game:
Above, we have one of the many instances where Ward is used in pass coverage. In fact, he’s the one of two members of the Browns defense who is not able to be seen on the pre-snap screen, the other being free safety Usama Young. Naturally, this area of Ward’s game is not his strength; Tennessee’s Nate Washington took Ward to task at one point in the team’s Week 4 loss. But in this specific game, Ward made several plays wherein only a handful of them resulted in box score blurbs.
In the specific play which resulted in a Phil Taylor sack of Kyle Boller, the pre-snap defensive set of the Browns looked a lot like the one above. A decent pass-rush which would collapse the pocket, Boller looked to his left to hit a hooking Jacoby Ford only to find that Ward had moved from his position in center field over to the Raiders receiver, forcing Boller to tuck the football and feel the wrath of the 300-pound rookie defensive tackle from Baylor.
On a second-and-long play later in the contest, the Raiders deployed three receivers and Ward was placed on the slot – again, Jacoby Ford. Ford ran a fly pattern out of the slot and the Raiders opted to hit Darren McFadden in the flat right behind where Ford would start. Ward immediately broke off of his receiver and turned into a heat-seaking missle, making the open field tackle and setting his defensive unit up for a third-and-long.
The image above is about the closest thing Juaron has called all season that resembles a Rob Ryan-like scheme coupled with the successful placement of Ward. Though I have already laid it out you with the red arrow, Ward starts off in the defensive backfield, pink towel and all. With no blitz being shown pre-snap, the tight end decides that his read is to block the rushing defensive end. This would ultimately be a bad choice, like mid-summer milk. Ward would go untouched and tackle the ball-carrying running back in the backfield a bit shy of the line of scrimmage.
To Ward’s (and the team’s) detriment, Oakand – as well as other opponents – frequently opted to run the ball away from the second-year safety by either testing the weak side or merely running behind one of the guards and avoiding any outside pressure all together. Though Ward is rarely placed in a free-wheeling position like the one above these days, it’s easy to see that this certainly remains his strength and can result in good things when called upon.
This last grab is one which has become more of the norm for Ward. More often than not, the strong safety is locked up against the strong side tight end or is tasked with ensuring the running back in question doesn’t try to do anything out of the ordinary. In this specific instace, the tight end does release as the Raiders call a pass play, but the Browns opt to keep the strong side linebacker on him in coverage. Ward, in turn, gets one-on-one with the running back as a pass-rusher. While No. 43 would not get to the quarterback in this time, it forced Kyle Boller to feel the blindside pressure and throw an errant pass to the near side of the field. No statistic for Ward, but a second-and-long for the Browns defense.
Naturally, the fact that Ward had 27 tackles through his first three games as a rookie compared to just 26 tackles though five games this season is going to turn some heads. We thought we had the second coming of Troy Polamalu on our hands, just without the crazy hair and shampoo commercials. But where guys like Pittsburgh’s Polamalu are roving safeties within a 3-4 scheme, Ward’s role on the 2011 Browns has changed dramatically from that a season ago.
Is the team taking away from their second-year stud’s strengths? Potentially. Has he been involved in a few marquee plays that have been on the low-light reel for this 2-3 squad? Undeniably. But Ward is doing exactly what Dick Jauron and his assistant coaches have been asking of him even if it doesn’t result in a tackle behind the line of scrimmage or a pass defensed. Those who draft individual defensive players in fantasy football will surely be disappointed that the 11-tackle days may have been a bit of an aberration for Ward as he was forced to compensate for the lack of quality which permeated the 2010 linebacking corps. Again, having a middle linebacker leading the team in tackles – instead of Ward – is a good thing.
Now freed up from line-guarding duties, Ward’s wearing a few additional hats, all of which he’ll gladly place deep in the chest of an opposing ball-carrier. And most importantly, while the run defense hasn’t exactly improved, the Browns are allowing more than 28 fewer yards per game against the opposition. While this may all be to the detirment of the tally marks next to Ward’s name in the box scores each week, it’s something I think most fans should be willing to accept as their skull-cracking, Dawg Pound riling strong safety is helping out in a few other areas during his sophomore campaign.