Denver’s base defense was a 3-4 Cover 2. However, there’s a big hole at the Sam position (strong side linebacker which was Shane Ray). As we saw during the preseason, Denver was in nickel and dime, a lot, to make up for it. It looked as if Joe Woods was trying different combos. Once Woods saw Justin Simmons, Will Parks and Jamal Carter playing really well, I believe the decision was made to cut Ward lose.
They wanted to keep Carter, hence someone had to go. Right now, Denver has four safeties, Darian Stewart, who can play free and strong equally well, but is really more of a strong. Justin Simmons is a hard hitter, but his cover skills are better than Stewart. His reach and youth combined with his football IQ make him a better fit at free. Will Parks is listed as a FS right now; however, it may be more about him shadowing Stew rather than playing that spot. Parks is a thumper.
Then there’s Carter who is listed as a SS, but may be more of a free. What does all that mean? It means Denver may look more like the Packers and less like Denver. It means Chris Harris, Jr and Aqib Talib will continue to do their thang, but the rest of the defense could be a mixture of packages with the safeties playing many roles. The first four games could open a door for later in the season and be a testing ground.
In nickel or dime, Carter or Parks could move up and act like an extra LB keeping them in a 3-4. Or Von moves in closer and they act like a 4-3 with Crick/Wolfe/Walker/Kerr/Peko all rotating between three, five and seven technique. Marshal and Davis could be used only in certain looks with Denver in a hybrid Cover 6. The choices are endless when you have the talent and brain trust of Woods and Marcus Robertson.
For now, let’s look at what a free safety, strong safety and a roaming/nickel safety does. The free, depending on Zone or man coverage, focuses on the WR/TE. He’s the safety net to the CB. He keeps downfield of where he thinks the ball will go and then speeds up to it.
The strong is the net for the run. He stays back and moves up once he sees the RB with the ball. Both FS/SS will go where the ball is, regardless of play if help is needed in tackling.
In a nickel package, the third safety, could act like a smaller linebacker and line up as either a Will (weak) or Mike (middle) guy. Typically safeties are slower than cornerbacks, but faster than linebackers. Since they’re faster, they’re usually smaller, so taking down a TE is harder, but not a smaller wide receiver. If you can have a safety with size and decent speed, you’ve hit the jackpot which is why Denver may go more safeties and less corners in a nickel package.
It will depend on Bradley Roby. He’s the key. His cover and tackling skills will determine how much we see a third or fourth safety. He needs to show he’s better than going with the bigger Carter.
Same goes for Todd Davis or Brandon Marshall in a dime package. With the talent Denver has, Denver could use 3 CBs and 3 Ss. Heck, they could use 4 safeties, Carter is intriguing and Simmons size opens up a lot of possibilities. Based on this, we could see Denver creating their own system. When Ray comes back, offensive coordinators will lack sleep trying to figure out how to stop this defense.