Ten years ago, Terrell Ray Ward had finally overcome his high school’s depth issues, but suffered a knee injury his senior season at the acclaimed De La Salle High School in Northern California. These days, we know him as TJ Ward, the Pro-Bowler, an integral part of the Denver Bronocos success, and the days of walking on at Mike Belotti’s Oregon program are long forgotten. On Sunday evening in Denver, he called off the Dolphins bid for the upset, despite a valiant effort on Miami’s part, with a late interception of Ryan Tannehill.
We’re going to change the format around here a little bit. Instead of being touch and go on just about every game played between Thursday and Sunday night, our focus will be on a single game each week, but I’ll drop a little bit of insight on what I see out of the corner of my eyes throughout the league. This week, we’re in The Rockies with the #1 crew from CBS and 76,987 paying customers for the Dolphins 39-36 road defeat.
Who is TJ Ward, and What Does He Do?
To be as good as the Denver Broncos have been, there has to be a little more to your defense than luck and reliance on the offense to do the lion’s share of the work. There’s a good feeling you have to have with Jack Del Rio running your defense, provided he’s not also your head coach. They have Terrance Knighton up front to disrupt the run game, which is a Miami strength, and pass-rushing options even after Von Miller, which is frustrating to third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The secondary isn’t all the way just yet, but they’re coming along pretty well after signing TJ Ward away from the Browns last off-season.
Ward is accustomed to having talent around him, and while Denver might not have a headliner like Joe Haden to join him in the seconary, but you couldn’t ask for more from Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby in his rookie season at the corner positon. Having watched Ward closely in Cleveland, you knew that he could keep his head on a swivel, find his target, and let it rip. Unfortunately, “letting it rip” the way Ward did early in his career drew penalties and fines, but over the last two seasons he’s channeled it in a good way.
He’s reacting better and identifying run/pass in the pre-snap moments better, which makes him a good run-stopper without getting beat over the top. He has two interceptions this season, and Sunday’s canceled the threat of Miami snatching victory from the grips of a 32-28 deficit with three and a half minutes to play. It was a first down play, and Tannehill had enough clock that there was no critical sense of urgency, meaning Miami still had options on the ground, but tried to go to Jarvis Landry on back-to-back plays and he tried to force it. Harris Jr had him covered well enough to force a deflection into No Man’s Land, where TJ Ward was serving as governor on Sunday afternoon.
Ward has transitioned from head-hunter to ball-hawk, which doesn’t mean he’s at all hesitant to make the pads audibly crack. In 2013, he got his first pick-six, and he nearly got touchdown #2 of his 5-year career in this one. Ward cut it all the way back across the field, after swiping the ball at the Miami 45, and he got as far as the 8 before being shoved out of bounds. To give Peyton Manning and that offense a 1st and Goal at the 8 is basically a guaranteed touchdown, two plays later Manning and Wes Welker obliged with a short touchdown pass. In four plays, Denver went from trailing by three to nursing a two-possession lead, thanks in large part to their newly acquired safety Ward.
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Ward Giveth, Ward Almost Taketh Away
So, you just got a key takeaway, one that allegedly put this game on ice for your team. Whether victory seems inevitable or not, you have to play all sixty minutes. We understand that these pass defenders are playing with the deck stacked against them. The play that draws a pass interference is almost as much of a necessary evil as actual completed passes in this day and age, but you still never want to hear your name called.
In Miami’s last-ditch effort to get two scores inside of the two-minute warning, they went for two to close the margin to three points, and Ward gave them two cracks at it. It’s probably important to mention that 35 of the 84 yards Miami went on their final offensive possession were courtesy of unnecessary roughness and pass interference calls on Malik Jackson and Omar Bolden, but it was yielding a second attempt at the conversion try that made the nightmare of a collapse slightly more realistic. Ward laid Landry out for one of those “the official can’t find his flag quick enough to throw it violently” flags, giving the Dolphins an easier chance to extend the game if they were fortunate enough to snag the onside kick.
Kickers Are Weird
Look, I’m of the mindset that if you have 53 players on your active roster, they all better damn well be football players. Kickers are very important to this game and are, perhaps, a little under-appreciated in the grand scheme. That said, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that they’re a bit off. However, sometimes the bizarre things they do are worth noting, so let’s make sure the onside kick attempt from Miami’s Caleb Sturgis was notable.
The concept is simple, but the execution is difficult when it comes to onside kicks. Boot a ground-ball ten yards or draw the hands of a player on the receiving team player to make contact with it before the threshold, and hope one of your 11 guys ends up with possession of the ball. There is only so much trickeration you can attempt, especially now that the no-fun police say you can’t really overload one side of the tee or another with too many players. Sturgis put his right foot behind his right leg as he approached the ball, as if to kick it left, but the misdirection fooled no one and Denver running back CJ Anderson recovered it with ease.
CJ Anderson Is Short for Cortrelle Javon Anderson
With his performance today, CJ Anderson has done just enough to make me interested enough to view his Wikipedia page, only to be disappointed when I saw how desolate his bio was when I got there.
He made up to 7 people miss on his 51-yard catch and run in Oakland two weeks ago for his first career touchdown, but was more than just a highlight against the Dolphins, without Montee Ball or Ronnie Hillman available. He combined with Jawan Thompson for 200 yards on 32 carries, but it was the second-year player from Cal that put the offense on his back and showed some brilliance in the game’s final minute.
He’d already run for 151 yards and found paydirt once, the initial go-ahead score, on 26 carries, but he got cerebral with his final touch of the game. It was also his longest run, going for 26 yard before he gave himself up in the interest of getting the clock to 0. Anderson had the first down his team needed to close the playbook and run the only play diagrammed for victory formation, Peyton Manning drops to a knee. It was a nice follow-up to recovering the onside kick, not sure how often you’ll see that from your featured running back, and put a bow around the gift of a day he gave his offense.
No Julius, No Problem
Sudden-superstar tight end Julius Thomas was a scratch for today’s game with a bad ankle, which is a shame. He’s hauled in 12 touchdowns in ten games this season, and the Broncos were 7-0 when Manning targeted him at least 5 times in a game. In the games against Seattle, New England, and St. Louis, he looked for the small forward-turned-tight end four times or less, and Denver won less than one of those games. Today, he’d have some familiarity in Jacob Tamme and the seldom-used Virgil Green to supplement Thomas’s out of this world production in the offense.
As it went, he threw in Tamme’s direction twice. One didn’t count, but it would have been a touchdown if not for a penalty on Demayrius Thomas. The other was for a loss; that’s what we see on the stat sheet and it tell us the tight ends didn’t factor into the outcome of this one. Coincidentally, it was Demaryius Thomas who got the six after negating Tamme’s glory. To let my praise of Anderson carry over into another blurb, he had a huge 21-yard pick-up on 4th and 2 to set up this touchdown, which got the Broncos as close as 28-25 early in the fourth quarter.
This 39-36 game only feature four punts, and three of them came off the foot of Brandon Fields of the Dolphins. On the receiving end of those punts was Isaiah Burse, who combined for 12 yards on those 3 returns, so we’re probably going to say something bad about the Broncos punt returner here. Well, he fumbled, with his team already down in the second half. Damien Williams stripped him of the football and John Denney landed on the football. Three plays later, Tannehill and Landry hooked up for six. They scored after a reprieve from the officials on what appeared to be a Von Miller interception to bail Burse out of trouble, but Ward was called for holding and Miami was able to convert the second chance into an 11-point lead.
Another special teams gaffe worth mentioning is the missed Brandon McManus attempt from 33 yards away that infuriated Manny Ramirez on the Broncos sideline. It came 13 plays after the Broncos received the second half with a drive that stalled at the Dolphins’ 15, when Jelani Jenkins sacked Manning on 3rd and 1. In addition to the sack, the second-year man from Florida led all Dolphin defenders with 9 solo tackles.
As devastating as Ward’s late interception was, some serious self-destruction on the visitors’ part ended up not hurting Miami at all. On a 10 play, 5 minute drive in the second quarter, Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews combined for three fumbles. Gibson actually dropped both out of bounds on short receptions, but Matthews put the ball on the turf in play right before the 2-minute warning, but Lamar Miller recovered the ball 3 yards further down the field at the Broncos’ 10. Tannehill hooked up with Mike Wallace on the next play to put Miami up 21-10.
Setting the Tone Early
There’s a serious difference between being on pace to do something and carrying out that pace. Based on the first half numbers, it would shock someone that didn’t watch the second halff, that Miami didn’t have 100-yard receiver or runner on the day. In fact, after a fast start, the Broncos figured Lamar Miller out. He finished the day with 59 yards on 12 carries after getting about 50 in the first half alone. Obviously the 21-10 2nd quarter lead didn’t translate to a big win for the Fins over the AFC’s best team, or at least the one with the best record. The Dolphins took the Opening Kickoff and used the running game and short passes to draw first blood and take the crowd out of the game. Again, there’s a difference between setting the tone and actually riding that them out. Daniel Thomas ran the ball well when he touched it, it’s a wonder Joe Philbin didn’t go to him more.
Possession is Nine Tenths
The Broncos score quickly in the present tense, so you shouldn’t let that time of possession number tell you anything, but the Broncos held the ball for about 35 minutes, giving them about a ten minute edge in time their defense got to rest. Today was the first time Manning took on the Dolphins as a Bronco, but he saw them plenty as an Indianapolis Colt, and you might surprised to hear he’s just 6-7 against them in his career. With the Colts, he was just 2-7 in his career before they moved out of their division to the newly-formed NFC South in 2003. The last time he saw them, on a Monday night in 2009, he had less than 15 minutes of game clock time to work with a hot night in Miami, but still left with 27-23 victory there. He now has four straight wins against the mammals from South Beach.
Monday Is For Degenerates
This week, our degenerate gamblers are blessed with not just one, but two games to recover from taking the Cardinals and the points in Seattle or whatever wage-losing wager didn’t work out for them. We’ll start with the standard product, which features the Ravens traveling to Bayou Country to take on the Saints. Caesars says the Saints are giving three and setting the point mark at 50. Now, the Ravens are a sub-par team on the road and they’re even worse against the spread this season, but I just can’t see the Ravens losing this game straight up. I am taking the Ravens and I think it’s enough of a shootout to think 51 is likely. Even in a vacuum, I think I’d be excited to see how this AFC North is going to play out. Who is going to be the next to lose and when?
Our bonus game is in Detroit, which doesn’t mean anything to Buffalo who is displaced from their natural home game, since they aren’t very good in Buffalo anyways. The bonus is they’re playing the Jets on a fast track. Buffalo is decent away from their home digs, maybe more business-like and the Jets don’t really pose any type of a threat. They cover 2 and a half, but this game doesn’t really sell itself as a game that’s going to feature more than 42. Enjoy it in select markets and on Sunday Ticket, while the rest of us suffer through Flacco versus Brees in that monopolized national space.
Random Thoughts Around the League and Elsewhere
Oakland won the other night. For shame, Kansas City, for shame.
A time might come where we have to discuss things like the clock management debacle between Mike Pettine and Mike Smith in Atlanta on Sunday. Pettine chose to take the Browns timeouts into the half with him, and attempted the same impossible field goal twice, even after Smith gave him a reprieve, where it was revealed Cundiff doesn’t have that distance on a shank nullified by a Falcons timeout. The Falcons had no business beating the Browns or even winning that game, but no excuse for not running the clock all the way down and letting Matt Bryant win the game with less than 44 seconds left.
Josh Huff started the Eagles scoring against Tennessee in the highest scoring game of the week with a 107-yard return on the opening kickoff. It might start to feel unfair of Chip Kelly can get the type of athletes he had at Oregon, such as Huff, to join him in Philadelphia.
Every time I looked at the Jaguars-Colts game, I had the broadcast showing me a former Cleveland Brown. One minute, D’Qwell Jackson is making a play, and my eyes could have been fooling me, but I saw both Trent Richardson and Joshua Cribbs cross the goal line with the football in their hands. It didn’t look like the Colts absolutely controlled the game with their division rivals, which makes you glad that game control is a factor that matters in the NFL.
Lovie Smith returned to Soldier Field as the head coach of a pretty lousy Tampa Bay team. His team looked inspired out of the gate, while the Bears looked the same unenthusiastic, flat team in the beginning. The only thing that would have been better than a Smith victory there would have been if he signed Brian Urlacher to a 1-game deal for this game, so his last appearance at Soldier Field would have been in that nasty Bucs uni. Too cruel or too soon? Bears spoil Lovie’s homecoming in this one, 21-13.
I think and I’ve thought a lot of things about the Arizona Cardinals this season, but the main thing is that I’m believing they could be the first to play on their home field in the Super Bowl and I think they can win that game. You know what I didn’t think they would do? I didn’t think they’d play a desperate Seattle team in the House of SeaChicken and come away with a victory. They’re a match-up problem for the Cardinals, which is really unfortunate for a team that needs to count on their ability to pull a rabbit out of their hat from time to time. The magic just isn’t there, not without Larry Fitzgerald in the mix. Maybe they’ll find that in their rematch with the defending champs in Glendale, but it will take more than luck if the offense is as stagnant as it was on Sunday.
Eli Manning to Odell Beckham Jr. for six points. Let’s not get caught up on making this the best thing we’ve ever seen. It was amazing. If you didn’t see the play, go find it. It just seemed to defy some basic principles of physics.
Let’s not forget the Giants lost, and the Cowboys continue to win. Tony Romo might be fun to poke fun at, but he’s leaving less room for criticism. If he and DeMarco Murray stay healthy, Dallas is one of those teams that might spoil the prospect of a home game for a certain team in the desert.
Lastly, on a personal note, Thanksgiving is coming up on Thursday and I want to say I’m thankful for everyone I have in my life. I often underestimate how blessed I am to have all that I have and love in this life. Stay healthy and safe, however you spend the upcoming week.