Denzel Ward has come a long way since his first career NFL game.
Ward, the fourth overall pick of the 2018 draft, lined up in Week 1 his rookie season against former Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and QB Ben Roethlisberger, who created one of the top quarterback-wide receiver duos in the league at the time. The task would've been daunting for most rookie cornerbacks, but not Ward, the All-America talent from Ohio State who didn't need much time to adjust to the NFL.
Ward snagged not one, but two interceptions in the game, which was one of the best Browns debuts in recent memory. He certainly hasn't forgotten about the performance, and he's keeping it in mind as he returns Monday to Heinz Field for the fifth time in his career in a pivotal Week 17 primetime matchup.
"It would definitely be nice to repeat that this game," Ward said, "but our main focus is going in, doing our job and trying to get a win."
Ever since that first career game, Ward, a 2022 Pro Bowler, has cemented himself as one of the Browns' most consistent secondary leaders and top cornerbacks in the NFL. His three interceptions this season match his career high from his rookie year and tie him with John Johnson III for most on the Browns, and his 14 games played in 2021 are the most he's played in a season.
Game No. 15. of his season, though, could be one his biggest.
The Browns need to beat the Steelers (7-7-1) and win against the Bengals (9-6) in Week 18 to have a chance to clinch the AFC North title. They also need the Chiefs (11-4), the current No. 1 seed in the AFC, to defeat the Bengals on Sunday, and they need the Ravens (8-7) to lose one of their final two games against the Rams (11-4) and Steelers.
For any of that to matter, though, the Browns need to beat the Steelers in what might be Roethlisberger's final game at Heinz Field. The 18-year veteran could be in his final season, which would make Monday his last game in Pittsburgh.
Ward fondly remembers his first game against "Big Ben" and also remembers watching him when he was growing up. He holds plenty of respect for the 39-year-old QB, although he's hoping to help the defense spoil the possible final home game of his legendary career.
"I remember it a lot," Ward said. "I used to watch those guys growing up … when guys like Troy Polamalu were there, all of those guys. I've been watching these guys since I was little. It's definitely an honor to take the field against Ben Roethlisberger since I was watching him as a kid and just competing against him."
Check out exclusive photos from the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus of the Browns preparing for their Week 17 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers
Now, Ward is one of the most consistent leaders of a defense that hit its stride in the second half of the season. His shut-down abilities have helped the group limit opponents to 17 or less points in six of the last nine games, which has helped the Browns rise to seventh in the league in total defense.
Ward has been a big part of that charge, and the Browns need him to continue to play well against top receivers in Steelers WR Diontae Johnson in Week 17 and Bengals WR Ja'Marr Chase in Week 18 to ensure it doesn't slow down. Ward and other members of the Browns secondary held both players to under 100 yards and no touchdowns in their previous meetings this season.
Sure, 2021 has been a career year for Ward, but he knows no games will be more important for him than the last two of the regular season.
A Pro Bowl nod is nice. A playoff appearance would be even better.
"We have to take care of our business and do what we're supposed to do, and everything will take care of itself come the end of the year," he said. "We need to go in there and focus all on Pittsburgh, and we have to go in there and find a way to get a win."