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Broncos Film Room: Is Justin Simmons an elite safety?

Jake Schwanitz Avatar
June 23, 2020

Entering the final season of his rookie contract, Justin Simmons timed his breakout season perfectly. The first three years of his career showed real promise as Simmons flashed natural athleticism and a tendency for making big plays. It all came together in 2019 for Simmons as he was able to put up career numbers in interceptions (four) and passes defended (15). It was also Simmons’ second consecutive season playing 100 percent of the snaps on defense.

At the end of the season, Simmons earned a spot on the All-Pro second team but was snubbed for the Pro Bowl. While many will rightfully argue that All-Pro is a more prestigious accolade than the Pro Bowl, it’s time for everyone to recognize just how good Justin Simmons is.

For this project, I took a look at every other safety that received an All-Pro or initial Pro Bowl roster accolade in an attempt to find out what made them great. While Justin Simmons may play the game differently than Earl Thomas or Budda Baker, there are certain traits that great safeties all have in common.

See Ball Get Ball

Because of the reactive nature of playing defense, instincts are the most important trait for any defensive player. Players that consistently find themselves around the ball put themselves in that position through film study, experience and the ability to read and react at a moment’s notice. Safeties are usually some of the most athletic players on the field because they need to be able to line up and fill multiple roles while covering a large area of the field. Here are some examples of great instinctual plays.

 The Broncos are in a two-high shell with Simmons playing the field side capping Tyreek Hill. This is an easy pre-snap read for the quarterback. While the Broncos are matching the Chiefs in numbers to the field, Simmons is giving Hill a big cushion. A bubble screen to Hill is theoretically the right play and should be an easy gain for Kansas City. Simmons is quick to react to the screen and takes a nice angle at Hill’s outside shoulder to maintain leverage and make the tackle for a loss of two.

Denver remains in a two-high shell with Cover 2 man even though they are backed up to their own nine yard-line. Rather than finding a receiver and sticking with him, Simmons decides to read Mahomes. Once Mahomes starts rolling towards the field side, Simmons stalks the quarterback and breaks for the pylon to create a turnover.

Plays like this are why Minkah Fitzpatrick was named First-Team All-Pro. The Steelers are in a Cover 4 zone and cover the Rams’ mesh/wheel concept pretty well here. Fitzpatrick makes an immediate read once he sees Kupp begin his shallow cross. Fitzpatrick keys in and even manages to jar the ball loose once he initiates contact. A big stop for the Steelers on 3rd-and-8.

Chicago took a step back from their 2018 form in 2019, including Eddie Jackson. Despite the dip in production, Jackson still earned a Pro Bowl selection. Chicago is in a two-high safety look early before the snap. It turns out to be Cover 3 with Eddie Jackson playing the middle third of the field. Denver doesn’t send any receivers vertical so as soon as Sutton cuts across the field on his dig, Jackson reacts. He’s able to make contact simultaneously with the catch and create a pass break up to force 2nd-and-10 for the Broncos.

Last Line of Defense

Safeties with the ability to confidently and consistently play single high at a high level, allow for much more versatility on the defensive side of the ball. When a defense is able to get out of a two-high shell, they will be able to defend against the run better and have more opportunities to play man coverage. These plays demonstrate the value of having a good single high player and how it allows the rest of the defense to match up with the offense.

Cleveland goes 4×1 to the field side, the Broncos are running a Cover 4 poach coverage. Simmons gains depth pre-snap in order to give himself room to make a play deep if needed. This is a great job all around by the Denver defense and it results in a coverage sack.

Denver is playing Cover 3 man match. Houston sends two receivers on each side of the field up the seam. Simmons does a great job of splitting both of the seams and forcing Watson to find a receiver underneath.

Earl Thomas has remained one of the premier safeties in the league since he was a rookie in 2010. Thomas has consistently shown multiple elite traits with his range being th e most impressive. The Patriots come out in a 1×3 11-personnel formation with two receivers in the close slot to the field. After the Ravens get set, Brady makes a call for the Patriots to go into an empty five-wide formation. Thomas shows off his range, intelligence and loose hips as he keeps track of Sanu’s deep post even though he has his back to the receiver. Thomas is in perfect position and contributes to the incomplete pass.

Another Earl Thomas rep against Brady and the Patriots. The Ravens blitz and get to Brady before the post/wheel concept on the field side develops. Thomas makes playing single-high look so easy on this play as he quickly reads the routes to the field side and is able to turn his body while remaining on top of the post from Phillip Dorsett.

Coverage Versatility

With the way offenses have been evolving with the use of tight ends and running backs in the passing game, safeties have had to adapt in order to match up. Players that can play well in deep coverage as well as lining up for man coverage duties out of the slot are becoming more valuable every year. The plays below offer a glimpse at how versatile these players have gotten.

Simmons is capping off DeAndre Hopkins in the slot to the boundary. The Texans take advantage of the coverage and matchup on Hopkins by having Hopkins run a fade from the slot. Although he stumbles towards the end of the play, Simmons is able to cover one of the best receivers in the league one-on-one at a good level. 

Another rep against Houston, the Broncos are running Cover 1 and this time Simmons is covering Keke Coutee in the slot. Coutee runs a nice route but Simmons has better coverage. Simmons remains technically sound by not biting on the double move and shows great athleticism to get between Coutee and the football for an incompletion.

Kansas City is playing Cover 1 while the Broncos have their best field position of the game. Courtland Sutton is in the slot with Tyrann Mathieu lined up across from him. Sutton has the size and strength advantage but Mathieu is able to make an unbelievable play to save a touchdown. This is textbook defensive back play. Mathieu is able to get his hands on Sutton early in the route to remain in position. While Sutton goes up to make a play for the ball, Mathieu remains calm and gets a hand between Sutton’s before violently ripping the ball from the receiver as he comes down.

Budda Baker is on the top of the screen lined up across from George Kittle. Although there is a size advantage in Kittle’s favor, Baker refuses to lay down. From the snap, Baker is physical with Kittle in an attempt to disrupt Kittle’s route. Once he passes the first down marker, Kittle breaks across the field and Jimmy Garappolo fires a dart to the tight end. Baker contests Kittle at the catch point and causes a pass-break-up.

Running Downhill

It wasn’t that long ago that there was a noticeable difference between strong and free safeties. While safeties have made the shift to becoming more versatile players, the lines that used to separate free safeties from strong safeties have become blurred. As mentioned above, players are becoming more versatile in an attempt to defend the passing game but it has also turned these players into real weapons when played near the line of scrimmage. 

Cleveland is in an 11-personnel formation with a tight bunch to the boundary. Simmons drops down closer to the line of scrimmage for his coverage as the snap nears. Mayfield tosses the ball to OBJ and the Browns are trying to catch Denver slipping. Simmons is having none of it though, he stays home and corals Beckham easily for a loss of five.

The Browns have 3rd-and-1 from the Denver 25 yard-line down five points. Simmons does an excellent job of disguising the blitz until moments before the snap. Nick Chubb barely gets the ball in his arms before Simmons is all over him. The loss of three forces the Browns into a 4th-and-4 that they would fail to convert, resulting in a win for Denver.

When he was entering the league in 2017, Jamal Adams was touted as a highly versatile leader that could become the foundation of an NFL defense. Adams earned First-Team All-Pro honors in 2019 and has quickly cemented himself as one of the most versatile players in the league. While he is a great coverage player, Adams could be even more impactful the closer he is to the line of scrimmage. On this play, Adams shoves aside Saquon Barkley, steals the ball from Daniel Jones and takes it back the other way for a quick six points.

It’s hard to believe that Harrison Smith is already entering his ninth year in the NFL. Since he entered in 2012, he earned a reputation as one of the more tough and violent safeties in the league. Kansas City is threatening to take the lead late in a tight ball game. The Vikings run Cover 0 on this third down with Smith blitzing up the middle. Smith quickly gets to the quarterback and causes Matt Moore to fumble. Moore would recover the ball but would lose 11 yards due to Smith’s pressure.

In Conclusion

While Justin Simmons was snubbed for the 2020 Pro Bowl, he is on par or better than those that received Pro Bowl honors. Simmons has shown that he has the instincts, coverage skills and versatility to be considered among the best safeties in the NFL. While it doesn’t help that the Broncos have been a losing team since Simmons became a starter in 2017, he has helped anchor one of the best pass defenses in the league during that time. Pending his current contract negotiation, expect Simmons to be a key contributing piece to the young, new-look Broncos for 2020 and beyond.


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