Before the Browns' first game of 2020, Denzel Ward was asked if he believes he can prove himself as an "elite" cornerback in the NFL with a strong season.
"I believe so," he said. "I believe every time I get the opportunity to go out there and show what I can do is a big opportunity to show that I am an elite corner in this league and do what I can do to help my team win."
Ward was coming off a 2019 season in which he played 12 games and snagged two interceptions, including a pick-6, and had 11 passes defended. He had a strong year, but he felt as though another level could be added to his game.
After seven games this season, he's appeared to make that jump.
Ward has one interception and has already accrued 11 pass deflections this season, which is tied for the lead in the NFL and ties his career highs set in each of his first two seasons. Ward has made a pass breakup in six consecutive games, which is the longest active streak in the league, and has provided lockdown coverage on nearly every top receiver he's faced so far this season.
"When you have a cornerback that can run, is instinctive and can match up one-on-one against anybody, that really makes you feel comfortable as a play caller," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said Thursday. "It can open up your whole menu. Each game, you just see him make multiple plays on the ball."
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The Browns' last game against the Cincinnati Bengals featured some of Ward's best plays of the season. In the third quarter, he made a potentially game-saving pass breakup on A.J. Green on a third-down play in the end zone that would've had a drastic impact on the final score had his attempt been unsuccessful.
Green, who's 6-foot-4 and has a significant height advantage on Ward, who's 5-foot-11, originally caught the ball with both hands when the pass reached him. Ward, however, leaped in an attempt to swat the ball before it reached Green. He failed.
But he didn't give up. As he came down, Ward thrusted his hand down through Green's arms and jettisoned the ball loose. Incomplete.
The Bengals were forced to kick a field goal.
"I could've scored four more points," Green said in his postgame interview. "He got his hand on it."
Ward's four-point play became massive in the 37-34 win, but it wasn't the only impressive play he made in the game.
In the first quarter, Ward made one of the niftiest plays of his career. The Bengals ran a screen pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd, and receiver Mike Thomas was assigned to get in front and immediately block for him.
Ward didn't only sniff the play out — he recognized the block, too. So he slid underneath the arms of Thomas and quickly popped up like a shortstop to tackle Boyd for a loss.
"That was some '007,'" linebacker B.J. Goodson said, referencing the James Bond movie series. "I don't know what to call that, but it was beautiful."
Even though Ward has one interception and is looking for more, he's still played a huge role in helping the defense attain a league-high 14 takeaways. Last week, for example, he deflected a pass in the end zone that landed in the hands of Goodson.
Ward has been a consistent force for a secondary that has battled through an up-and-down season so far, and everyone on the defense has taken notice.
"Denzel is a great teammate, first and foremost," Goodson said. "His play has been outstanding. Whenever he has been targeted, he always steps up. His play speaks for itself."
Ward's big plays will be needed in Week 8, when the Browns face the Las Vegas Raiders and will attempt to limit big plays from quarterback Derek Carr. The seven-year veteran has compiled a career-best 8.2 yards per attempt and has been one of the most efficient deep-ball quarterbacks in the league this season. Despite the heavy load of deep throws, though, Carr has thrown just two interceptions.
That number could change Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium if the Browns defense can keep pace with Raiders receivers and continue snagging takeaways.
"We put an emphasis on takeaways," Ward said. "Takeaways lead to winning ball games. It helps our offense and helps our team win. Even though we may struggle in some other categories, like points in the game, if we are able to get some takeaways, that is going to increase our chances of winning."
If Ward continues to make his presence felt on opposing offenses, there won't be much question as to whether he ranks among the game's elite corners. That was what the Browns hoped for when they selected him fourth overall in the 2018 draft, and Cleveland is starting to reap the benefits now that Ward is finding his groove.
"I feel I've been playing pretty well all season," he said. "I plan to take it one game at a time and do what I can to help his team win."