The Cleveland Browns may not have won, but they didn’t lose. That’s progress, right? Against their rival and one of the best teams in the NFL, the Browns were not only competitive but fought their way back from a 14-point deficit in the final quarter to force overtime and could have essentially won the game if it weren’t for a blocked field goal with just seconds remaining in extra time. It was almost as though the Dawg Pound could squint and see the light at the end of a long, dreary tunnel, one where they have seen the darkest of times, including 1-31 over their last two years and a rock-bottom, embarrassing 0-16 season in 2017.
There were a number of players who played really well and gave Cleveland a glimpse of what could (and essentially should) be a bright future for their football team, especially on defense, and one of those players was cornerback Denzel Ward. It truly is amazing what happens when the Browns actually draft an Ohio State Buckeye.
In his first NFL start, the Browns’ top cornerback was impressive, to say the least. It was just any normal, easy debut either. He was forced to go up against one of the league’s top receivers, Antonio Brown. Talk about a tough task to start your career. He could have been scared and wanted to ease into it, but instead, he made the most of the opportunity and allowed the Dawg Pound to get an up-close glimpse at what could be their shutdown cornerback for years to come.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound was considered by some to be undersized. But with his speed and ability to go up against the one of the best, as he proved he could while at Ohio State, Ward was able to make up for that lack of size. While playing in all 85 defensive plays, Ward totaled six tackles and two interceptions.
At 21 years, 134 days old, he’s the fourth-youngest player with two interceptions in a game in NFL history. He’s also the first player with two interceptions in his first career NFL game since former Browns cornerback Selwyn Jones did so in September 1993, according to ESPN’s Field Yates.
Browns CB Denzel Ward is the first player with two interceptions in his first career NFL game since fellow Browns CB Selwyn Jones did so in September of 1993.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) September 9, 2018
His teammates took notice of his impressive debut. Especially the way he was able to make impactful plays throughout the entire game.
“It’s crazy. He has all of the talent in the world,” linebacker Joe Schobert said of Ward. “He was out there making a lot of plays. If he can keep it up, he can be a special player.”
His one lone blip on the day seemingly came when he allowed Brown to score a touchdown. But let’s be honest, was there anything Ward could have done to prevent it? It doesn’t look like it. The rookie still wants to make sure he doesn’t allow that to happen next time.
“I just didn’t get the ball out,” Ward said of Brown’s touchdown catch against him. “It was a great catch by him, and next time, I have to get the ball out.”
Although you could argue that he should have looked back for the ball, the rookie did about as well as you could do to try and prevent the catch. It was just a perfect pass from Ben Roethlisberger and an impressive catch from Brown. Nothing any defender could really do.
via Pittsburgh Steelers, Twitter
Faced with the tough task of trying to hold No. 84 to at least an average game, Ward did about the best he could. Brown still accounted for 93 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions, but he truly is just that good.
Head coach Hue Jackson praised his rookie cornerback following the game, admitting that there was nothing else Ward could really do to prevent Brown from catching that touchdown.
“He is going to compete. His hand was right in there on the touchdown catch to (Steelers WR) Antonio Brown. He had a chance to get that ball out, but against a really good player, the guy made that play on him,” Jackson said. “He came back and kept fighting, kept competing. I think Denzel is made out of the right stuff. He keeps going even though he gave up that touchdown. He put his head down and said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ He made plays there at the end so that is good to see, but we can’t let them in the end zone on the one.”
Many questioned the Browns selecting Ward with the fourth-overall pick back in April’s NFL Draft, especially with defensive end Bradley Chubb still on the board. Although it’s a really minute sample size, the former Buckeye seems to be the real deal after an impressive performance while having to try and keep arguably the best receiver in the NFL in check. If Ward can be a lockdown cornerback that the Browns can count on week in and week out, the rookie can change so many things for this defense and help turn them into a top-tier defense sooner rather than later.
Looking ahead to Week 2, after going up against Brown, Ward is now faced with the tough task of having to defend New Orleans Saints wide receiver, Michael Thomas. The former Buckeye had 16 catches, 180 yards, and a touchdown in the Saints opener Sunday afternoon. The Buckeye vs. Buckeye matchup should be a fun one to keep an eye on, to say the least.