Thursday night was all about Baker Mayfield, but the man picked just three spots after the superstar signal-caller isn’t playing like an afterthought. Cleveland Browns rookie cornerback Denzel Ward, a local Ohio State product, is leading a revolution on the defensive side of the ball, turning the doormat that was the team’s secondary into a formidable unit – a No Fly Zone.
Matching Mayfield’s heroics stride for stride, Ward allowed New York Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold to complete just two-of-four targets for eight yards into his coverage in Thursday’s contest. He also logged four combined tackles and one defensive stop, all coming together to form his team-high 90.9 overall grade and 91.4 coverage grade.
Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson did beat Ward for a 17-yard gain in the game, but Ward’s tackle of tight end Chris Herndon eight yards behind the line of scrimmage bit back at his yards allowed and counted as his lone defensive stop on the night. Darnold's other two targets into Ward’s coverage, which fell incomplete, were intended for wide receiver Jermaine Kearse and tight end Jordan Leggett.
Now three games, 202 defensive snaps into his NFL career, Ward has earned an overall grade of 81.9, which currently ranks eighth among cornerbacks, and a coverage grade of 86.3, which is good for sixth. He has allowed receptions on 15-of-21 targets for 130 yards, two touchdowns, and six first downs while logging two interceptions across 117 coverage snaps. He ranks 31st in passer rating allowed (79.6) and 22nd in yards allowed per reception (8.7).
Ward’s 81.9 overall grade ranks second on Cleveland’s defense coming off their win on Thursday night, as edge defender Myles Garrett (86.0) leads the team at first. Garrett’s and Genard Avery‘s play up front has played into Ward, and the rest of the Browns’ secondary in coverage, as Garrett (7) and Avery (6) have combined for 13 total pressures in three games. Also feeding off the attention drawn to the Browns’ edge tandem, second-year interior defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi leads the team in total pressures with 11. Cleveland’s defense had just 18 pressures through Week 3 in 2017; three games into the 2018 season, the Browns have totaled a whopping 41 pressures.
Behind Ward, veterans T.J. Carrie and Terrance Mitchell, who were both signed as free agents this offseason, have not been disappointments either, as the duo has allowed just 182 receiving yards and one touchdown between them. Also, Mitchell came down with what went on to be the game-clinching interception against the Jets on Thursday. Factor in athletic third-year linebacker Joe Schobert, who has recorded an 84.3 coverage grade in three games, and the Browns’ ability to defend the pass – from pass-rush to coverage – is marching toward being one of the best in the league.