It’s been a frustrating and heartbreaking two weeks of football for Cleveland Browns fans. We have gone up against legit Super Bowl contenders in the Steelers and Saints and come up short both times. The first game against Pittsburgh was sloppy all around by both teams and the Browns simply blew multiple chances to win the game. Against the Saints, we all know exactly who to blame that on. Public enemy number one, Zane Gonzalez, is no longer in Cleveland as of yesterday afternoon anyway, justifiably so. Despite the disappointing outcomes of these first two games, there has been one thing to be really happy and optimistic about: the defense. To be more specific: the rookie, Denzel Ward.
Being a cornerback in the NFL is a tough job and arguably the toughest of the defensive positions to play. What makes it worse is being a rookie and going up against the best receiver in the league in Antonio Brown and another who is easily in the top-10 in Michael Thomas. Add on the fact that it’s all in the first two games of the season and there’s a pretty good reason for concern. Provided all of the obstacles and challenges facing Denzel Ward in the first two weeks of his NFL career, he has played pretty darn well.
Ward had two interceptions, three PBUs and six tackles in his first professional outing which led him to earn the Rookie of the Week award. One of the interceptions was a beautiful read and an even better diving catch, while the other was off of a tipped ball. He has also shown solid tackling, which I am personally a huge sucker for. Most notably, however, he seems to have a short memory and a level head, both rarities for young players in the league.
In Week 1, Ward gave up a touchdown to Antonio Brown about halfway through the third quarter, despite playing near perfect defense. Big Ben simply threw a perfect pass and Antonio Brown is Antonio Brown. I found it hard to be mad about that particular play. Even so, Ward didn’t seem at all flustered by this and continued to play at a high level for the rest of the game. Another thing I like is that he is humble and quietly goes about his business, avoiding unnecessary penalties while still remaining extremely competitive.
Now on to the Saints game, where Michael Thomas definitely got his: 12 receptions on 13 targets, for 89 yards and two touchdowns. Although what isn’t included in those stats is how often Ward was actually defending Thomas. Hint: it was not much. I looked back at some footage from the game and noticed that Ward wasn’t tasked with guarding Thomas anywhere near as much as one might have thought heading into the game. He did give up a touchdown to him, even though he played essentially perfect defense similar to the touchdown he gave up in Week 1 against Brown. It was just another case of “you can’t defend a perfect pass.”
There is a lot to like about Ward, as well as a lot to look forward to. John Dorsey thankfully crushed the narrative spawned from previous regimes that the Browns never draft Ohio State Buckeyes. Not so surprisingly, it already seems to be paying huge dividends. Ward is by no means the best cornerback in the league, but given time and growth, he could definitely make a strong case for that title in the years to come. We’ll see how he does against rookie quarterback Sam Darnold and a rather weak Jets wide receiving core this Thursday night in Cleveland.