NFL Closeup: Safety T.J. Ward’s Line of Scrimmage High Wire Act

T.J. Ward's tackle of Jamaal Charles for a loss last Sunday is what makes football beautiful, predatory, and savage. Photo by BGSU86
T.J. Ward’s tackle of Jamaal Charles for a loss last Sunday is what makes football beautiful, predatory, and savage. Photo by BGSU86

I love great running back play and this season, Jamaal Charles’ game qualifies. Charles and LeSean McCoy are two of the most elusive backs in the NFL who can also get the tough yards. Their skill at the sharp cut or layering moves upon moves in succession from these backs at the edge of the line of scrimmage or in the open field and it’s the beginning of the end a failed series for a defense.

One false move by the defender and whiff, off to the races. I may imagine that a Charles keeps defenders up at night, the motivation might be excitement more than fear. You have to be confident to play defense in the NFL – especially in today’s league where the rules are stacked against them.

Although fantasy football has influenced my tendencies to watch football from an offensive perspective, my personal DNA makeup is rooted more in defense when you examine the teams I’ve gravitated to as a fan.

  • Excellent press corner play
  • Physical and/or rangy safeties
  • Freakish edge rushers
  • Physical ground game

This describes much about the 1980s Cleveland Browns, the Jeff Fisher Tennessee Titans at the turn of the century, and Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks. Throw in my love for the Lester Hayes-Mike Haynes corner combo in Oakland and you see what I’m saying.

But what comes to mind when I think of what I love about defense is watching a safety at the line of scrimmage. It’s an act of blatant, white-knuckled aggression and risk that turns the tide of a series or game one way or the other. Watching Browns safety T.J. Ward crowd the line of scrimmage to run blitz Jamal Charles at the edge is one of those high wire acts that is football at its most predatory, savage, and beautiful.

T.J. Ward A1

Ward is the safety at the right hash on this run designed for Charles to follow his fullback to the edge. Because it’s a zone play with double teams to the linebacker from the inside, Charles as multiple options and for a runner of his quickness and agility he’s at the apex of the ball carrier food chain when it comes to amazing cutbacks.

Ward is blitzing on this play and his job has more complexity than simply “tackle the runner.” That’s the best-case goal. However, the contingency plan if this doesn’t happen is to funnel Charles inside where there’s enough help to limit the Chiefs’ runner. With a runner like Charles who is the NFL’s Road Runner this is no guarantee for this week’s Wiley E. Coyotes from northeast Ohio to stop him.

T.J. Ward A2

Football is a game of angles and defenders know this better than anyone. Ward has to approach the line of scrimmage fast enough to set a position that forces Charles inside and earns the safety a shot to make the tackle. His potential obstacles to his spot are linemen, fullbacks, and the most slippery darter of a ball carrier in the NFL. To help Ward get in position, the Browns hope it’s edge defender can get penetration into the backfield and occupy or beat the fullback.

However, Ward still has to handle the tight end. This requires the speed, vision, and change of direction of a running back, but some of the same body control and technique of a defensive end rushing the edge on a pass play.

T.J. Ward A3

See Ward bending his hips and torso to corner the tight end at the line of scrimmage? The orange line is the path he ultimately takes to meet Charles in the backfield, but the outside loop is to prevent the runner from having this two-way go (red arrows) that is currently available at this stage of the play. If Ward slips or misses, Charles is outside the defense and in the flat, breaking ankles of Wards’ teammates.

T.J. Ward A4

Here’s that defensive end-like bend. He’s cornering like a motorcyle on a track and this not only gets Ward under the tight end’s interference, but also eliminates Charles’ option to bounce outside. Now, Ward has to explode with a 90-degree turn and hit through Charle’s legs and wrap tight. No easy task.

T.J. Ward A5

Charles still has a chance to work inside his fullback and dip to the middle of the line where the double teams have gotten enough traction for a positive gain, and there are enough Chiefs inside the right tackle that this could be a much bigger run than it looks.  Note Ward’s arm approaching Charles over the knee. The higher a defender can grab a ball carrier, the more second-effort chances he has to wrap the player if he doesn’t get a secure hold initially. It’s a lot like a wide receiver extending his arms to attack a target at the earliest window – it affords more opportunities to make the play.

T.J. Ward A6

Ward slides from Charles’ knee to the feet and ankles to drop Charles for a short loss. While there’s a lot of help from his teammates, the individual athleticism and awareness of angles is as compelling as an acrobatic catch or open field run.

For analysis of offensive skill players like this post, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available April 1. Prepayment is available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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