The Denver Broncos created a controversy last year by releasing veteran safety T.J. Ward on the doorstep of the regular season. The move created collateral damage that the team is still trying to reckon with.
Ward was not only a prolific player on the field, but he was also a locker room leader and an emotional tone-setter for the defense. And it turned out that replacing his niche role as a ‘dime-backer’ in sub-packages wasn’t as easy as perhaps the front office and coaching staff had assumed it would be.
The Broncos banked on Justin Simmons and Will Parks, and both let the team down — in a sense. Simmons didn’t disappoint by way of his on-field performance. Quite the contrary.
Simmons played extremely well next to Darian Stewart, but the let-down came by way of the injury bug. In two full seasons with the team, Simmons is yet to play a full 16 games, and missed three starts in 2017.
Parks, however, was clearly in over his head. And it was Parks who was called upon primarily to replace Ward as the team’s ‘dime-backer’ in nickel and dime sub-packages.
The carnage in Parks’ wake was prolific, and the damage to the team high. He finished the season as one of Denver’s worst-graded defenders via Pro Football Focus. A perusal of the tape quickly bears out PFF’s grade.
Considering that the Broncos spend close to 80 percent of their snaps in a sub-package, the team needed to find a solution to the problem. The front office is banking on the Su’a Cravens addition being just that.
Cravens was a second-round pick of Washington’s back in 2016, but his pro momentum was significantly crippled by a severe concussion. Not only did the concussion cause him to miss time, it also led him to briefly retire from the NFL.
However, Cravens had a change of heart but it didn’t come in time to salvage his 2017 season. The Broncos quickly identified him as a prime offseason target, and orchestrated a trade with Washington before the 2018 draft.
Now in the orange and blue, Cravens has taken the jersey number formerly worn by Aqib Talib (21) and has already energized the depleted No Fly Zone secondary.
“Those guys have been together for a long time, and bringing Su’a in, he fits right away,” Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods said during June’s practices. “He has that little bit of swagger that you like. It’s been good so far.”
What was it about Cravens the Broncos so coveted? Our Carl Dumler studied the tape from Cravens’ rookie year in Washington (VIP) and came away ultimately impressed by the defensive back. Here are the cliff-note takeaways.
Cravens is a twitchy, athletic safety/linebacker hybrid that excels at covering tight ends and running backs. But he can also be a physical force in the box, and come downhill quickly to help stop the run.
In other words, opposing teams shouldn’t so easily be able to run the ball down Denver’s throat when the defense goes into a sub-package, nor will quarterbacks be able to pick apart linebackers and safeties in coverage as easily as they did last year. The Broncos are even trying to coach Cravens up to handle coverage duties as a deep centerfielder, although I wouldn’t expect that to be how he is primarily deployed.
“He’s a unique player,” Woods said in May. “You can see his natural instincts when he’s in the box. When he’s in the box, he fits the run like a linebacker. Right now, you can see that. You can see it’s easy for him. We’re just really spending a lot of time teaching him how to play off the ball. Playing the deep safety position. But I think he’s going to really help us in terms of what we’re able to do with our sub-packages. I think there’s a few things actually we can do that we couldn’t do last year.”
Hearing the defensive coordinator admit that Cravens allows the Broncos to do things defensively that they couldn’t last year is striking in itself. But Woods isn’t the only Bronco who’s talked publicly about the new ways Cravens can help the defense attack opposing offenses.
“I think bringing in Su’a just gives us another level of our defense that we can totally explore into,” Justin Simmons said during OTAs. “I mean he gives us so much more versatility and mobility, both at safety and if we put him at like our dime and nickel packages. He’s also another smart safety, too. He’s already picking up the defense, knows it well and is making his checks. Su’a already seems like he’s been a Day 1 guy. Like he’s been here since all last year. So, I’m really excited to have him, and like I said, another part of the defense that just makes us that much better.”
The Broncos now have three capable players for their ‘big nickel’ sub-package, which includes three safeties. With Simmons and Stewart holding down the traditional free and strong safety positions, respectively, Cravens can be freed up to “fit the run”, or match up with the athletic, pass-catching tight ends and running backs that have traditionally had Denver’s number.