When re-watching the Broncos-Patriots game, something in the Broncos pass coverage stands out. They were shadowing a pass catcher from the Broncos. Not just any pass catcher, but Rob Gronkowski. And the player they were using to do it wasn’t Aqib Talib, Chirs Harris, or Bradley Roby. It was TJ Ward. Ward is certainly a very good player in his own right, but he’s not close to the first name one thinks of when considering the Broncos’ pass defense. He has a reputation of more of an in-the-box, run stopping SS than a coverage player. Ward also isn’t a physically imposing player, and his listed 5’10”, 200 lb. frame looks diminutive when juxtaposed with Gronk’s 6’6″, 265 lb. body. Despite those perceived limitations, Ward was pretty effective against Gronkowski in the AFC Championship. The stats tell that story. Ward ended up going out with an injury about halfway through the 4th quarter. Before that, Gronk had 4 catches on 9 targets for 67 total yards, a number that includes a 31-yard gain with LB Danny Trevathan, not Ward, in coverage on Gronk. Afterwards, he had 4 catches on 6 targets for 77 yards, including the TD at the end of the game.
Rob Gronkowski is the Patriots’ top receiving threat. It just so happens that the Panthers also feature a dynamic receiving Tight End as their top pass catcher, Greg Olsen. Stopping Olsen will be very important if the Broncos want to be successful on defense in Super Bowl 50. Ward is part of the key to that. Hopefully for the Broncos, he’ll be healthy and will get to matchup against Olsen. The Broncos have other potential solutions for facing Olsen as well, but Ward appeared to be the most effective, even if he wasn’t pretty doing it. Looking at Gronkowski’s targets during the game can be instructive as to how the Broncos defended him, what worked, and what didn’t.
1-10-NE 20 (Q1, 15:00) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass short left to 87-R.Gronkowski to NE 25 for 5 yards (59-D.Trevathan).
This is the very first play of the game. The Patriots actually appeared to put in a pretty heavy personnel package, with 304 lb. blocking TE Michael Williams, RB James White, and just two WRs. However, and this is something they did all game, they split everyone out and went with five-wide. The Broncos really aren’t in a great position to defend this, as they have their base 3-4 defense in. I didn’t count on every snap, but I’m this is one of the very few times the Broncos actually used their base personnel. They spent the vast majority of the game in Nickel or Dime packages. That’s also notable because this is one of the few plays where TJ Ward was used as a standard safety. This means that, while he’s on the same side, he’s not going to be covering Gronk on this play. As it is, Gronk gets underneath the zones from the LBs and picks up a short gain. It’s nice for the offense, but not a particularly impactful play either way.
3-8-NE 35 (Q1, 13:17) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass incomplete short middle to 87-R.Gronkowski [95-D.Wolfe].
This is just three plays later, and significant changes on the Broncos defense are clear. It is third and long, so the chances of a run are small, but even still the Broncos are in a Dime defense against 11 personnel from the Patriots. Another change pops on the screen immediately. TJ Ward is no longer a deep safety; he’s in man coverage on Gronk. Honestly, Ward doesn’t to a great job of coverage on this play. He lets Gronk get even with him quickly, and Gronk is past him before he enters his break. Still, the Broncos aren’t asking Ward to pretend he’s Aqib Talib. Ward’s approach to the play signifies his responsibility: don’t let Gronk beat him deep. Ward is drifting towards the outside at the snap, and continues that way afterward. This forces Gronkowski’s route to be an in-breaking route. It’s a dig on this play, and the fact that the Broncos have two deep safeties makes the route basically worthless. Brady is hit as thrown, and Darian Stewart almost breaks on the ball for an interception. Ward’s coverage put a clear constraint on Gronkowski on this play.
3-3-NE 27 (Q1, 6:56) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass incomplete short right to 87-R.Gronkowski.
Here we get to see a one-on-one matchup between Ward and Gronk. This happened a number of times throughout the game, and this play is a pretty good example of how they typically went down. There was a lot of contact. Ward was physical with Gronk at the line of scrimmage, which was important, and he maintained that physicality throughout the game. On this play, Gronk calls for a flag (he didn’t get one) and Ward probably deserves to get one. At the same time, the pass was borderline uncatchable. Defenders will get away with some of these penalties, and they’re probably more likely to get away with it against physically imposing players. That’s what Gronk is. That’s what Greg Olsen is. It’s easy to overdo it, but on the whole Ward being physical against the big TE in this game worked well.
2-10-NE 24 (Q2, 13:36) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass deep right to 87-R.Gronkowski to NE 43 for 19 yards (20-J.Bush; 43-T.Ward).
At the beginning of this play, Ward shows versatility, acting as a LB in the box against the run threat. This was another important aspect Ward added for the Broncos, as it allowed them to go into their dime defense. The Panthers don’t spread it out like the Patriots do, so it might not be something the Broncos break out often, but it could certainly be of situational importance. However, in this scenario, Ward walking up in the box like that makes the Broncos vulnerable defensively. Ward is unable to drop back quickly enough, and winds up a step behind Gronkowski when Gronk comes out of his break. Because there was no underneath zone from a linebacker, Gronk has a lot of space to go to and picks up a nice gain.
1-10-NE 33 (Q3, 13:15) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass incomplete short right to 87-R.Gronkowski (59-D.Trevathan).
Because of the shift on this play, Ward ends up switching responsibilities and covering Williams, but he (towards the top of the screen at the snap, with the white sleeves) was originally designed to cover Gronk. Trevathan, the player in coverage, does a very good job to knock the ball away.
2-10-NE 33 (Q3, 13:11) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass short middle to 87-R.Gronkowski pushed ob at DEN 36 for 31 yards (21-A.Talib).
It’s the beginning of the second half, and the Broncos tried to go back to their base defense (yes, that’s Von Miller lined up against Michael Williams at the top of the screen). It’s not 100% clear because none of the angles available showed it, but it’s pretty obvious Williams split out wide from a position that was tight to the line of scrimmage, and the Broncos rotated by having Miller follow him and walking Ward further back into the deep safety spot. Because Ward started as the lone defender out wide to that side, he’s over the numbers, which is a lot wider than you’d normally see a safety play in Cover 2. This gives New England space to the middle to work, and they work it by exploiting the mismatch of Trevathan on Gronkowski. Danny did alright earlier in the game with underneath stuff, but he is clearly not capable of keeping up with such a dominant TE for long, and Gronk beats him on the dig here, picking up a big chunk of yards. The Patriots had to scheme Ward out of the play to get this matchup.
1-10-NE 16 (Q3, 1:24) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass short middle to 87-R.Gronkowski pushed ob at NE 28 for 12 yards (25-C.Harris).
Ward is playing off here, so he doesn’t cover Gronkowski, who is running a drag and picks up a decent chunk. The result is a bit different from the first play of the game, with a nice gain here. A rub route held LB Brandon Marshall up, which allowed Gronk to pick up the yardage after the catch. From the plays so far, it may not seem like Ward covered Gronk a whole lot. The real reason is that this is a very incomplete picture of the Patriots’ passing game. Including plays negated by penalty, the Patriots dropped back to pass 64 times in this game. Ward and Gronk were on the field at the same time for 36 pass plays before Ward got injured. Of those plays, he was shaded over Gronk in 29 of them, and was the primary defenders (this got a bit muggy considering zone defenses) about 20 times. You’re not seeing Ward defend Gronk a whole lot on these plays because generally the Broncos (with a lot of credit to Ward) did a good job of making Brady look elsewhere (until Ward went out, at least).
1-10-DEN 44 (Q4, 8:23) (Shotgun) 12-T.Brady pass incomplete deep right to 87-R.Gronkowski. DEN-43-T.Ward was injured during the play. His return is Questionable.
This is the play where Ward got injured, you can see Edelman collide with him and Ward limping after the play. Gronk is running a curl and is covered well (not by Ward). Brady is able to extend the play, but throws off balance and misses an improvising Gronkowski.