The Denver Broncos Week 13 loss to the Miami Dolphins was far from a perfect game for anyone, except for maybe Bradley Roby, who was tasked with being a full-time starter and did so with great success.
Beyond Roby, Chris Harris Jr. had himself a game and safety Justin Simmons played well also. More so than Simmons’ play, his usage was quite telling as he became the de-facto slot cover man in nickel situations on third-down, showing some intriguing skills. With Aqib Talib suspended, the Broncos showed us a glimpse of the future, and the signs were all quite positive.
We went back to the coaches tape to take a deeper look into the secondary's youngest and most promising members.
Bradley Roby answers the call
Only a week ago, we wrote about Roby and how his renewal in 2019 would be a very interesting decision for the franchise as he’s probably worth in the range of $10 million annually on the open market. In his first game as a full0time starter this season, No. 29 balled out, playing fast and showing superb instincts combined and ball skills.
His ability as an outside cover corner was easy to see and not just because of the natural combination of size and speed that he possesses. Roby was in control, made receivers go where he wanted them to and shadowed wideouts to perfection while playing off.
Kenny Stills, especially, just couldn’t free himself from Roby, whose eyes and instincts jumping on the ball were superb. Roby was able to keep guys on his hip and turn to play the ball downfield wonderfully. The fluidity he possesses and instincts (on this play below in particular) were just amazing.
He also made one of the plays of the game on his forced fumble punching the ball out of Stills hands to then recover it himself. He allowed all but one pass on targets to his side and had three pass deflections to boot. Beyond the fumble, Roby was physical tackling on screens or against the run not missing any tackles.
In a 2017 season that’s been good but hasn’t seen the former Buckeye take his game to the next level, this was a “next-level” type outing, with Roby looking like a bonified star who’s beyond equipped to start and lock coverage down on the sideline. His time as a starter was a big test and Roby answered the call tenfold.
Simmons unleashes his cover potential
Roby also played well when covering in the slot the few times he was put there, but the real star of the show was safety Justin Simmons, who played like a cornerback for most of this game.
With no Talib and fourth cornerback Brendan Langley having struggled in his first action against the Oakland Raiders the week prior, Joe Woods decided to adopt a tactic that’s worked for this defense in the past. Most notably in Super Bowl 50 were in an effort to counter the Carolina Panthers’ league-best running game against nickel formations, the Broncos always played in a base look subbing out T.J. Ward for Roby on third down. That allowed the defense to still have the numbers up front while still having three competent cover corners on the backside.
Without the three cornerbacks, Woods had to adjust, so he used Simmons to cover in the slot, and the second year safety performed masterfully considering the spot he was thrown into. Listed as the strong-safety, Simmons is so much more than your run of the mill, in-the-box safety, it all starts with his athleticism and coverage ability.
Simmons is fluid, too, and can mirror receivers inside. Even when the Broncos chose to bring in an added defensive back in sub-packages—often safety Will Parks who had a few costly mistakes—Simmons continued to be used as the go-to slot guy in coverage, while Parks went to cover the deep middle of the field.
Simmons' ability to play coverage like a cornerback is exactly why T.J. Ward was let go, allowing the Broncos to stay in base without losing much or anything in coverage.
No. 31's physicality and ability to work through traffic on crossing routes—which are classic man-beating concepts used by offenses—was on full display in his play of the game. On the play of the game, he followed his target across the formation, broke on the ball, showed the concentration to hold onto the rock after bobbling it and then put on the burners for a pick-six.
Simmons has the closing speed to play downhill when lined up deeper, he’s a trustworthy tackler, and he has all the ability in the world in coverage. The Dolphins game should only be the begging.
Think of the early Julius Thomas touchdown, a play too easy for Jay Cutler to execute and diagnose pre-snap. If Talib isn’t out, that’s Simmons out on an island against the big tight end instead of Parks, and it might not have been such an easy score for Thomas then. Simmons boasts an incredible 40-inch vertical which he’s shown off this season when having to make plays in the red zone in coverage.
Of course, it wasn’t all perfect as Simmons playing out in the slot bit on an out-and-go route - sitting on the go portion giving Stills the time to blow by him and get a touchdown with ease.
With more experience and finer tuned instincts, Simmons can erase those plays. But the way in which he was used was very telling and his performance, for the most part, was very positive.
While it’s easy to see everything as doom-and-gloom in Denver in the midst of an unexpectedly terrible season, there is still tons of talent on this defense and now two youngsters who might just have really bright futures.