Leading the Buffalo Bills by only six points with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter last Thursday night, the Cleveland Browns needed a big defensive play to seal the victory, and fourth-year safety T.J. Ward provided that moment.
The Bills advanced the ball 20 yards in only three plays and faced a second-and-three from their own 40-yard line when backup quarterback Jeff Tuel dropped back to pass to wide receiver Robert Woods. At that exact moment, Ward jumped the route, and then, returned his second interception of the season 44 yards for a touchdown, and a 37-24 Browns lead, with 1:44 to play.
“One of the things we did when we came in here is challenge the guys to be as good as they can be,” Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “We don’t know what that is. They don’t know what that is. I think, if you have quality players and a good system, you can be as good as you need to be, and I think we can be.
“What that is, is a reflection on him understanding film study, reading the quarterback, showing him something that he’s not playing. It’s really a reflection on a great week of preparation for T.J. Hopefully, it shows him that he is growing and understands he can be a complete player in the league.”
Even when taking Ward’s production into account, it is his maturity off the field and approach to the game that has allowed Horton to experiment with the way he calls a game.
“I’ve been very pleased and very happy to get to know T.J. on a personal level,” Horton said. “I scouted him when he came out of Oregon, and watched him as he played, but had no idea what kind of character he had.
“He’s a very smart, instinctive young man, which you don’t know unless you coach the player. He’s allowed me to do some things on the field with disguising. He’s done everything I hoped for and beyond. I’ve been very pleased with his production, and really, his leadership in the classroom and on the field.”
And when talking about the most pleasant surprise of the season so far, Horton said it is “the character of the men in the room,” men like Ward, that has made the biggest different for the Browns.
“It’s shown in the classroom,” Horton said. “It’s shown off the field: how they support the community, how they relate to one another, how they support -- it’s a team effort, offense, defense and special teams -- how they come together, how important it is to them, how they study, adversity. A good-character group of men is probably the best way I can explain it.”