After a 23-3 victory over the New York Jets on Monday Night Football, the Cleveland Browns are 1-1. The offense has not lived up to the high offseason expectations, but the defense has performed well, with one glaring exception; cornerback Denzel Ward.
The 2018 fourth overall pick had a sensational rookie season which culminated in a Pro Bowl appearance. But in the Browns first two games in 2019, Ward has looked very bad. His effort is lacking, he’s allowing consistent separation in both man and zone coverage, and isn’t adjusting to the ball well. Why has his play dropped so much, and will he be able to turn things around?
Ward played in only one preseason game, and performed well in the “dress rehearsal” against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so there wasn’t anything to indicate that he would struggle to open the season. He was targeted four times in Week 1 vs. the Tennessee Titans, surrendering one catch for 47 yards against rookie A.J. Brown.
And just because a defender isn’t being targeted on a given play doesn’t mean he did his job well on that snap. Ward was beaten often, but Brown’s first NFL catch stands out in particular.
#Titans WR AJ Brown beats Denzel Ward for a 47-yard gain.
— Steve Frederick (@_SteveFrederick) September 8, 2019
Ward gives no resistance at the line of scrimmage, so Brown immediately gains inside leverage. At the top of his route, he makes a hard inside break and creates plenty of separation, allowing Marcus Mariota to hit him for a big gain. Free safety Damarious Randall gets turned around as the overtop help (and probably blew his assignment, which was likely the middle of the field), but that doesn’t excuse what Ward did (or didn’t do). Ward’s “tackling” effort is also extremely poor, and Brown is able to gain an extra 15 yards because of it.
Ward’s strength is in press man coverage, where he can remain close to the receiver and use his agility and elite closing speed to defend passes. But if he’s not jamming guys off the line and giving up leverage, how does he expect to cover well?
Ward has always been feisty when it comes to hand usage, often to a fault. Exhibit A: his three penalties against the Titans. Ward finished with a 29.8 grade from Pro Football Focus, along with a putrid 29.0 coverage grade. He improved to a 62.7 in Week 2, but he still wasn’t anywhere close to the player who was shutting down opposing wideouts in 2018.
On eight targets, Ward allowed six catches for 76 yards. He also badly missed on three tackle attempts, after stating that he hoped to avoid the “stupid tackling” that Gregg Williams chastised him for last year. Ward’s form is better now as far as protecting himself goes, but he’s far too flat-footed, leading him being easily juked, and when he does make contact, he’s harmlessly bouncing off of guys.
New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks likes to play primarily zone coverage, and many have rushed to this as an excuse for Ward’s poor play. But to this point, Wilks has balanced both types well, Ward is just not playing well in either.
The same concerns (exclusively a press corner and terrible when tackling) dropped rookie Greedy Williams to the middle of the second round, but he is excelling. In 47 coverage snaps, he’s been targeted only twice, allowing once catch for 16 yards. He’s also yet to miss a tackle or commit a penalty.
Of course, Wilks should put Ward in the best spot to maximize his skills, and that’s press man coverage. But Wilks is a smart coach; he realizes that Ward cannot be made to remain in that box of “exclusively a press man corner”. Even if he’s great at that, he’ll become predictable and easy for opposing offenses to beat.
Ward is an NFL player and a former top-five pick; if he needs to have a defensive scheme crafted around his one-dimensional strength, the Browns have a serious problem on their hands. He doesn’t have to be as good at one as he is at the other, but Ward must be able to play both coverage types well. And right now, he isn’t playing either well.
Cleveland travels to Los Angeles to take on the Rams and their high-powered offense; if the Browns hope to have a chance at pulling off an upset, they’ll need their top corner to return to form.