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Here's how Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey earned the Broncos' trust

Andrew Mason Avatar
September 18, 2020

In the first half Monday, the Broncos got a glimpse at a lockdown corner in a scheme that suits him. A.J. Bouye allowed just one reception to the Titans, breaking up a pass and generally holding up a stop sign at his area of the field.

A shoulder injury changed that.

Now, Bryce Callahan is set to be the CB1 while Bouye recovers on injured reserve. Two rookies, Michael Ojemudia and Essang Bassey, will be the second and third cornerbacks, with Bassey handling the nickel role.

Those two rookies were perhaps the most unexpected success stories of training camp. Ojemudia missed time in camp because of a quadriceps injury; that appeared to put him on track for a lesser role given the inability to make up for lost time due to the lack of a preseason. Bassey, an undrafted free agent, had to work his way past Davontae Harris, De’Vante Bausby, Duke Dawson and Isaac Yiadom, all of whom contributed last year, and didn’t see any first-team look in sub packages until the final week of camp.

And there they were, holding their own.

“Pretty well,” defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said when asked how Bassey and Ojemudia fared. “That’s pretty tough to do to enter in a pro-football game and play and play in rhythm with our team. They didn’t set us back at all.”

Bassey kept Titans slot receiver Adam Humphries in front of him and limited the damage; he didn’t miss a tackle and finished with five solo stops. The game wasn’t too big for him, because he listened to those who wanted to help him.

“The first thing I can say for Essang, he came in from Day 1 and he just took the coaching,” Bouye said last week. “Any advice that guys gave him like [CB] Bryce [Callahan], other vets, things like that he also listened to that.

“Coach [Vic Fangio] tried different ways to attack him in practice and he shows that he knows they plays, he knows the coaching, he knows where he’s supposed to be. Coming in as a rookie, that’s one thing that you want to see, what kind of guy he is, what does he know about the playbook and how can he help us. He’s been standing out to me a lot.”

Ojemudia, meanwhile, had the biggest play that almost was: a nullified third-quarter interception that saw the third-round pick demonstrate some of the best aspects of his play.

It began with Ojemudia dropping back as Titans wide receiver Kalif Raymond sprinted into the secondary. Raymond cut to the left sideline, but Ojemudia is able to move with him, avoiding the trap of getting turned around when changing direction while keeping Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill in his line of sight. Then, when Tannehill’s pass to Raymond was off-target, Ojemudia’s flawless read of the ball allowed him to intercept the pass.

Ojemudia displayed the vision and awareness of a seasoned veteran. It helps that the Broncos offered him the chance to step into a zone-intensive scheme with concepts akin to those in which he flourished at Iowa. But it also takes intelligence and maturity to make the leap as smoothly as he did.

“He’s been phenomenal,” Bouye said last week. “He’s been out there — you can tell he knows route concepts. It’s a similar defense that he had in Iowa, so he knows where his help’s at. He jumps routes, too, which helps us.”

Now comes the bigger test. Tennessee didn’t have NFL film on Ojemudia or Bassey, thanks to the lack of a preseason. Pittsburgh will. This is why rookie progress typically isn’t a straight incline; whether you’re talking about cornerback or quarterback or left guard or nose guard, inevitably opponents adjust after studying film and subsequently attack the perceived weak spots.

Thus, it becomes all about how a young player adapts and shakes off frustration. Both appear cut of the right mental timber to do fine in this regard.

The challenge is steep. Three of the Broncos’ next four games are against quarterbacks that have either been NFL MVPs, won multiple Super Bowls as starters or both. Between now and Oct. 11 in New England, only the Jets’ Sam Darnold in Week 4 gives the Broncos’ defensive backs a breather from a cluster of quarterbacks who aren’t what they were five years ago, but still have the ability to draw from their brilliant past to dice up defenses in the present.

“There’s no question you have to earn your stripes against stud quarterbacks,” Donatell said. “Ben is one of them. We’re going to have to make some plays. There’s no way around it.”

But win or lose, expect Ojemudia and Bassey to be better for it.

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