Cornerback Denzel Ward is finally ready to change his tackling technique.
After a back injury, two concussions, a season of public shaming from former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and conversations with new coordinator Steve Wilks, Ward acknowledged Wednesday he must adapt to going against the bigger bodies of the NFL.
“I got my head in there a few times on plays that I shouldn’t,” Ward, the No. 4 pick who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie last year, said after an organized team activities practice. “I think I was just trying to be too physical at times and go up against guys that were 260. So I just got to get lower and just tackle a lot smarter if I could.”
The issue was first raised in the preseason when Ward was forced out of a game with a back injury after taking on Eagles tight end Zach Ertz.
He played 13 games and had three interceptions, 11 passes defensed and 53 tackles, but suffered the second of two concussions within three weeks in December when he tried to tackle Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah along the sideline. It ended his season and opened his eyes to the problem.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “I just have to be smart about the tackling.”
Wilks believes a defense’s identity is established by how well the cornerbacks and safeties tackle. Sure, they have to be physical, but technique and efficiency are more important.
“You really have to be able to teach the guys the different technique and fundamentals, understanding exactly where their help is within that particular play,” Wilks said. “I know Denzel last year had a situation when he had come in and threw his body around, which resulted into some concussions. We really have to teach these guys how to tackle.”
He said that won’t be a problem.
“It is definitely correctable,” Wilks said. “It is more teaching the proper technique and that is where we are right now in this phase of OTAs. Really giving him the fundamentals of understanding how to tackle in certain situations where the ball carrier is.”
Ward (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) said he’s fully recovered from the concussions and is training to add a few pounds and keep them on during the season. He said the brain injuries didn’t make him reconsider playing.
“I’m a football player. I like to be physical and play hard,” he said. “I have to be smarter on plays when I’m going up against a player and making a tackle. I have to be more conscious of how I tackle and everything, but when I’m out there on the field, I’m playing ball. I’m giving my all.”
Ward played mostly press-man coverage at Ohio State and had to adapt to playing more off-man coverage last season.
“I played it before, but I’m getting more comfortable with it definitely,” he said.
He likes man but is looking forward to playing more zone under Wilks, which creates more opportunities for interceptions by allowing the corners to have their eyes on the quarterback.
“That’s what I like a lot about this coaching staff. I feel that it is a balance so far,” he said. “I feel last year we kind of got caught up in running a lot of the same things, a lot of man-to-man maybe on some possessions where it was kind of overdoing it. But I feel this year has been a little bit balanced in being able to play man and zone. I like to play zone as well, get vision on the football and make plays.”
Regardless of the coverage, Ward will be tested by receiver Odell Beckham Jr. once he is a regular participant in mandatory minicamp and training camp.
“I definitely look forward to going against Odell specifically and seeing what he brings to the table, and I feel he’s going to get me ready for the games,” Ward said.
When the first-team nickel defense lined up Wednesday, Ward was joined by rookie second-round pick Greedy Williams on the outside. Williams will have to beat out veterans Terrance Mitchell and TJ Carrie for a starting spot and playing time this year, but he was drafted to pair with Ward as the starting corners for years to come.
“He’s a physical player, he has good footwork,” Ward said.
Williams reached out to Ward on social media before the draft about training together and they stayed in touched.
“I was real excited about the pick of Greedy,” Ward said. “I had called him that night, just telling him how it’s funny how life works, and he ends up getting drafted by the Browns. We just had some talks about being a tandem and just ready to get to work.”
In Browns history, cornerback tandems start with Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield, who teamed up in the 1980s to create the Dawg Pound and go to a combined seven Pro Bowls.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of them. I met them as well,” Ward said. “That’s definitely something that I envision with me and Greedy or whatever corner they put on the other side. But just being a tandem and being two guys that can lock down players on our sides of the field.”