Pittsburgh currently lays claim to the most famous #43 in the AFC North, but there’s a potential take-over looming on the horizon.
With Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu aging, the door is open for a fresh, new face to step-up and take on the role as the AFC’s most feared safety. The Browns’ T.J. Ward is quickly becoming the heir apparent to Polamalu’s fame as one of the most feared safeties in the NFL.
In only his second season in the NFL, Ward has already established his name in the households of Browns fans everywhere due to his physical style of play and bone-jarring hits. It won’t be long before the rest of the league is forced to take notice of just how good Ward really is as a safety in the NFL.
Ward has tasted success at nearly every level of football. In high school, he was a member of a prep powerhouse team called De La Salle, that won a mind-boggling 151 straight games, including 3 National Championships.
Despite not being heavily recruited out of high school, Ward still managed to make a name for himself at the college level, choosing to walk-on at the University of Oregon. While at Oregon, Ward was quickly noticed as a freshman, and was all set to start at corner for the Ducks before injuries interrupted his season. Injuries plagued much of Ward’s college career, but he was still named as an honorable mention to the (then) PAC 10′s All-Conference Team.
Browns’ GM Tom Heckert certainly has a knack for finding talent through the NFL Draft, and Ward is a primary example of the talent Heckert covets. In the 2010 NFL Draft, Ward didn’t have to wait long to hear his name called. When the second round got underway, the Browns used the 38th overall pick to select Ward.
Teamed with Cleveland’s first round pick from the 2010 NFL Draft, Joe Haden, the Browns now have one of the more talented secondaries in the entire NFL. The fact that both are only in their second year, means that they’ll likely be the cornerstones of a potentially dominating secondary in Cleveland for a long – long time.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Cleveland’s rising star, who recently teamed with FanVision to bring an added experience for fans in NFL stadiums. I strongly encourage you to read more about FanVision, by clicking here.
(On what FanVision offers NFL fans) – “FanVision is a hand-held device offered to fans at the stadium that is small enough to fit in your pocket, but features a high-resolution screen. In attempt to bring fans closer to the game, FanVision offers highlights and stats from your game, as well as highlights and stats from every game around the NFL. It also features fantasy stats on players so that fans can still keep track of how their fantasy teams are doing while they’re at the game. It even gives you the replays and different replay angles that the refs use to view a play that is under review. It’s really just a neat way for fans to experience the game”
(Getting the team’s first win of the year) – “It feels real good. We felt like we should have come into this game 1-0, but we really let one slip away in week one. To get the pressure of earning your first victory off our backs, really feels good. With the way the game ended against Cincinnati, it was critical for us to come out of Indy 1-1. It just really feels great to have that first victory of the season.”
(The biggest difference in the team from week one, to week two) – “With the way the Cincinnati game ended, it was really gut-wrenching for us. No doubt, we were disappointed. We not only let our guard down, we let our fans down and ourselves down. Just the focus this team had heading into the game with Indy was a big difference. We knew we needed to come away from the Colts game 1-1 heading into week three.”
(What the victory means for the team) – “It put is in position to come into our match-up against Miami with a .500 record. This team is really looking forward to being one of the best teams in our division, and with each victory, we gain the confidence needed to reach our goals. It was a huge confidence booster. I think we really showed our willingness to work together as a team in order to grind out a win.”
(Pat Shurmur – what does he bring to this team?) – “Coach Shurmur allows us the freedom to be professionals and to do out job. He’s a laid-back guy, but he demands the best from his players and expects us to go out there and compete each and every Sunday. He has a plan for the direction he wants to take this team in, and he has a firm understanding of that plan. He’s also a great players’ coach, and I really enjoy playing for Coach Shurmur.”
(…and Coach (Dick) Jauron?) – “He, too, is a real laid back guy, but he knows what he wants out of his players, and he demands respect from his defensive players. Coach Jauron has a great defensive mind, and it reflects in his 4-3 scheme. I think the 4-3 is going to be a really good look for us this year on defense.”
(Playing for the dominant, De La Salle football team) – “We were a very disciplined football team. Coach (Bob) Ladouceur asked and expected a lot out of his players, especially since we were only high school kids. He made sure we competed at a high level, and taught us about work ethic and how to focus week in and week out. Even though there were 50 guys on the team, we really were just like one unit. I’ve never been apart of anything like that – the brotherhood, and that type of team – there’s nothing like it.”
(An injury plagued high school career, leading to a walk-on opportunity) – “Maybe I could have gone on and played at any school in the country, but I’ll never know because I never really had the opportunity to show what I could do on the football field. I honestly think it was meant for me to go to Oregon, and I’m thankful I was able to make the most of my opportunity. Everything happens for a reason.”
(His first game at Cleveland Stadium his rookie season) – “Well I got a taste of the NFL in week one, so that helped me adjust to the game before my first home game as a Cleveland Brown. We suffered a tough loss to Kansas City in week two, but the experience was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. The fans were loud and proud, it was amazing. It was great to see how excited the city of Cleveland gets about Browns football.”
(What he notices about the environment in Cleveland Stadium) – “It really is a great environment to play in as a professional football player. There’s a lot of pride and tradition backing the Browns, and it reflects with the passion fans show us every home game. You got to love the Dawg Pound. They’re always loud, even during pregame. It’s just a great environment – a very passionate environment.”
(T.J. – Do you consider yourself a leader on defense?) – “Absolutely. I definitely feel I’m a leader. Although I’m young, I want to do everything I can to help my team win. If it’s sharing my knowledge of the defense, demonstrating a drill or just being vocal, I definitely feel that I’m a leader. I’d like to continue to grow as a leader as well.”
…and last, but not least…
(What would you like to say to Browns fans that have done nothing but suffer heartache and disappointment since the team’s return to the NFL in ’99) – “Expect greatness. I can promise you that this team is working extremely hard to turn things around for the franchise and Browns fans everywhere. We work hard in practice, in the film room, during the off-season and on the field. We want to produce a team that Cleveland can really be proud of. I know they’ve heard it before, but we really want to bring a Championship to Cleveland. We want it more than anything.”
My impression of T.J. Ward….
T.J. was only my second “professional” interview, and I must say – I was extremely impressed. The thing that I’ve noticed recently about the players on the Browns roster, is that they all seem to embrace the city of Cleveland. Ward is no exception.
I’ve been impressed with Ward since the last game of his senior year at Oregon.
His senior season at Oregon, the Ducks faced-off against my favorite college team – the Ohio State Buckeyes – in the Rose Bowl. Ward recorded 10 tackles in that game, but what stood out was his physical toughness in the passing game.
When the Browns selected Ward in the second round of last year’s draft, I was ecstatic. Ward entered his rookie season with questionable cover skills, but his willingness to lay the hammer down on a wide receiver coming across the middle, was spectacular. (Just ask Cincinnati’s Jordan Shipley)
Where Ward really shines on defense, is his ability to play the run. He loves – loves – to tackle. In fact, as a rookie, he lead the team with 123 total tackles, 95 of which were solo.
From Jack Tatum, to present day’s Troy Polamalu, bone-crushing safeties are an excellent weapon for the defense. They strike fear in receivers who dare enter their domain, and Ward is quickly becoming an elite, hard-hitting safety. Some might say that Ward compares to a young Polamalu, but they couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, I’d give a slight (unbiased) edge to Ward.
Both Polamalu and Ward can knock the snot out of a receiver, hitting them with such force that, more often than not, will jar the ball loose or cause the receiver to drop the ball. Unlike Polamalu, however, Ward can actually contribute to the passing game. He’s big, strong and fast. I’m aware of Polamalu’s flashy interception returns, but look at the film closely and you’ll see that most of those INTs come on tips, or a complete misread by the opposing QB. Very rarely will you see Troy read a QB’s eyes, jump the receiver’s route and then make the INT.
Ward has two career interceptions, but you can expect that total to grow throughout his career in the NFL. As the season progresses, questions about Ward’s ability to cover in space should finally be answered.
Really, Ward is just an all-around great football player. He works hard, practices hard, plays hard and is sincerely dedicated to finally bringing Cleveland a Championship, something he’d be remembered for, for years beyond his playing days by Browns fans.
If you’re a Cleveland fan, you’ve got to love the fact that Ward is only in the second year of his career. With him and Joe Haden being so good so early in their careers, it really gives the Browns an extremely young and talented secondary for years to come.
Imagine, in a few years, if Ward and Haden really do become the dominant players they are shaping-up to be, that would be scary for opposing offenses but satisfying for Browns fans. If Buster Skrine, Dimitri Patterson, Usama Young and Mike Adams can continue to improve and take their game to a higher level, the Browns will have, quite possibly, the best secondary in the league – for years to come. (No disrespect to Sheldon Brown, he’s a great player – outstanding player – but is approaching the end of his career.)
Browns fans are lucky to have such a passionate player in Ward on their team. Browns wide receivers are extremely lucky that he doesn’t play for the opposing team.
What the coaches are saying about Ward…
Head Coach Pat Shurmur:
(On Ward’s match-up against Dallas Clark) – “I think T.J. does a nice job in coverage. The nature of the size sometimes, he’s tight to the coverage. Throughout the year, we’re going to face some really good pass catching tight ends and I think Dallas Clark is one of those type of players. He’s very explosive, but I feel like T.J. will be up to the task and it will be a good match for him.”
(On Ward’s growth as a player) – “I think T.J.’s a competitor. T.J.’s a terrific player against the run and I think he covers well. What I saw from T.J. was a guy who was excited about that he missed some training camp and I’ve seen him now really work his way back in, coming back from minor injury and I’ve seen him compete extremely well. I think he’s the kind of guy you want playing safety because he’s a gritty guy, he understands how to play and he’s competitive.”
Defensive Coordinator Dick Jauron:
(On Ward’s ability to cover tight ends) – “T.J. will certainly improve as he ages in the game, as he gets more and more experience. He’s another guy that is highly competitive though and he will work at it and he is going to have to use his quickness and strength against Dallas (Clark).”
(On Ward’s coverage skills) – “We really like what we see in T.J. and he is another young player that just needs to play. He needs as many snaps as he can get both in practice and on gameday to just keep gaining experience. I believe you saw in the Indianapolis game, he made a terrific play on their tight end. It was kind of a crossing route down the field and he got a pass break up on it. He’s got a unique ability, toughness. Now we just have to get him more and more experience as much as we can and as quickly as we can.”