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Broncos Battle Breakdown: Clarity emerging at the safety position

Zac Stevens Avatar
August 4, 2018

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Dime, nickel, free — there are a lot of words about money surrounding the safety position.

And the Denver Broncos are going to utilize them all. A lot.

In fact, defensive coordinator Joe Woods is going to use the safeties so much, he might just get rich on dimes and nickels.

Of course, dime and nickel refers to how many defensive backs are on the field, with dime referring to six and nickel, understandably so, referring to five. But instead of adding cornerbacks to the base defense — two safeties and two cornerbacks — Woods is using a heavy, heavy dose of safeties.

Entering training camp, Justin Simmons clearly had one of the two safety jobs locked up, and veteran Darian Stewart was the front runner for the other. But with many young guns coming for Stewart’s spot, that second position wasn’t quite yet solidified.

After one week of camp, that second spot is all but locked up.


Su’a Cravens being sidelined by a sore knee didn’t make Woods shy away from the safety position at all on Saturday’s practice. In fact, Woods had more than two safeties on the field significantly more often than not.

In base defense, used sparingly on Saturday, Stewart and Simmons were lined up deep as the eyes of the defense.

When the team added another safety on the field, Will Parks — who has the lone interception of Case Keenum through six days of camp — stepped on the field. But with three safeties on the field, there was no assigned spot for Parks, or rather any of the safeties.

Instead, versatility was the name of the game.

All three safeties had at least one play where they were the lone player on the defense deeper than seven yards, with the other two safeties in the box.

Typically, Stewart was the deep safety, with Simmons out wide on a receiver, tight end or running back out of the backfield, and Parks as a dime linebacker typically roaming somewhere between the tackles.

If quick labels had to be put on each of the three, Stewart would be defined as the traditional high safety, Parks would be the team’s dime backer and Simmons would be Woods’ Swiss Army knife.

But just as the offense may have tried to capitalize on a safety matchup, Woods changed it up. On the day, both Parks and Simmons blitzed off the edge. Parks brought the pressure lined up as a traditional outside linebacker on multiple occasions, while Simmons blitzed from the slot corner position.

In order to afford an extra safety, Woods typically pulled one of the two inside backers — Todd Davis and Brandon Marshall.

On Saturday, the loss of a bigger linebacker, in place of a safety, had no negative implications against the run. In fact, the additional speed of Simmons and Parks made it difficult for the running back to successfully get outside or bounce plays back.

In coverage, Simmons was solid in the few one-on-one matchups he had, staying with his man the entire time.

The biggest room for improvement for the group was when they were in zone coverage, specifically with passes 10 yards in the middle of the field. This will likely get better with additional reps and further communication with each other and the linebackers.

On Courtland Sutton’s 95-yard touchdown reception, Sutton shook Stewart off him after beating Bradley Roby in coverage, allowing the rookie receiver to beat the last line of defense on the way to the end zone.

For a few plays on the day, Dymonte Thomas was added as the fourth safety, playing back with Stewart.

As the third safety of the group of three, Parks also got reps playing alongside Thomas and Jamal Carter. When Parks did that, he typically played a similar role that Stewart played with the first team — foreshadowing what his role could be in future years.

Thomas played more of a Simmons role with Carter playing Parks’ role — lining up mainly in the box and at outside linebacker.


Entering camp, Stewart had the veteran lead, per se. Now, Stewart just simply has the lead. A firm grasp on the competition.

This doesn’t mean Cravens and Parks won’t play, because they certainly will, as Saturday indicated, but when the Broncos go two safeties early in the season, expect it to be Simmons and the veteran, Stewart, with “veteran” being an important word.

“Stew is Stew, he’s solid. He’s a veteran player that’s played at a high level for a long time. He’s our leader in the backend,” head coach Vance Joseph said on Saturday talking about Stewart. “He’s very, very smart and he’s tough. He hasn’t shown any dropoff. At all.”

With an enormous amount of hype surrounding former second-round pick Cravens entering camp, Parks has done a remarkable job holding him off. In fact, before Cravens missed multiple practices with his injury, Parks was the team’s third safety in a similar role to what he was on Saturday.

In Cravens absence, Parks has taken off.

Once Cravens is healthy, he will certainly push Parks for playing time, but most likely will be utilized just for his strengths until he’s able to become more well-rounded.

“Very instinctive football player. He is a natural player in the box,” Woods said, talking about the talented Cravens. “I know he was more of a hybrid linebacker in college and that’s what he played for the [Washington] Redskins, but right away you can see how quickly he can fit inside. He’s a good underneath cover guy.

“The biggest thing to work on with him is playing deep defense. He really hasn’t played it a lot, so it’s just going to take time to develop them. Overall, he’s doing a good job.”

In terms of the backups, behind the four safeties that will clearly make the team, they received good news on Saturday.

Due to rule changes on kickoffs, Joseph said the team will “have to” keep more players between the positions of safety, linebacker and tight end, potentially opening up one more spot for a safety on the 53-man roster.


Stewart on his role

“I’m stepping into this leadership role. Nothing changes. I still have to be on my game. It’s all competition. The safety group is a nice little group. We just have to keep working and build that depth.”

Stewart on how he feels (Question asked by Demaryius Thomas)

“I’m great. I feel like I’m 24 again.”

Simmons on Darian Stewart

“Stew’s been great. Stew’s been the same guy that I came in with when I was a rookie. Selfless doesn’t really care about sharing too much knowledge, all he does is win. He’s been a part of a winning culture here since he’s been here. He wants to uphold that standard, especially when you talk about the safety position and how legendary it’s been. He just wants to uphold that standard. That leadership forces you to uphold your own standard in the secondary. All the guys are leaning on him and following his leadership.”

Woods on moving Stewart around

“We’ll definitely do that at times. I think the NFL is always about matchups, so whether we need to move Justin down to cover a tight end or move Stew down in case you want to play the run, we definitely have the flexibility to do that with those guys while they’re all out on the field at the same time. We’ll definitely have that as part of our game plan moving forward.”

Woods on how much of a luxury Stewart is since he can play multiple positions

“It’s good. He’s played both [strong and free] for us. He’s played the strong and free safety position. He’s played the dive position, but really all of those guys. Justin, Stew, Will, even with Su’a now, again, we’re just starting with Su’a, but we want to be able to move those guys around and create favorable matchups for us.”


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