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Better Together: T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart thriving in Broncos' backfield

From his locker at UCHealth Training Center, Darian Stewart gazes over at Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. 

The two are engaged in an animated and loud – very loud – conversation that half the locker room can likely hear.

And Stewart can't help but laugh.

The seventh-year safety knows this is typical Ward, his coworker at the back end of the Broncos' defense.

"It's fun," Stewart says. "That's the locker room for you. We have a great group of guys and their character is off the charts. Just being around these guys, that's what you'll miss most after you're done playing."

Ward is the boisterous, emphatic, rambunctious character of the two. He fires up the team before games and is a constant source of entertainment. Stewart, by contrast, is more likely to sit quietly at his locker and take it all in. During training camp, he would sometimes sit alone at lunch to recharge and talk with his wife and*daughter. *

"We have plenty of vocal leaders," Stewart says. "There's no need for me to be vocal. Them boys, they speak for us."

On the field, however, Ward and Stewart each hit for themselves. 

Take the Broncos' opening game against Carolina: On third-and-6 from the Panthers 40-yard line, Cam Newton bailed backward in the pocket before he side-armed a screen pass to fullback Mike Tolbert. With room to run, Tolbert turned up field and chugged toward the first-down marker. Stewart was the only one in position to make a play as the 5-foot-9, 243-pounder rumbled his way. The Broncos safety gave up 30 pounds to Tolbert as he lowered his shoulder and attempted to make the tackle.

It didn't matter.

Tolbert wasn't just brought down -- he was stopped in his place. As Stewart buried his shoulder into Tolbert's abdomen, the fullback's momentum ceased on impact, and he fell backward in slow motion.

"You put a big hit on somebody," Stewart says, "and you've got guys out there that make sure they know where you are at all times. Those are the moments I live for, and that's what I feel like pumps this defense up." 

The Broncos ran off the field after the stop. Ward caught up to Stewart, jumped up and down and slapped his helmet.

Tolbert likely remembered Stewart well. In Super Bowl 50, Stewart delivered a similarly punishing hit that forced a fumble and set the Broncos up at their own 40.

"I'm just a cool, laid-back type of guy," Stewart says. "That's always been me. But when I step on the football field, man, I can't be that same guy. As a defender, I feel like you have to be physical.

"That separates me. I'm just a different guy on the field. I have to take it up a notch."

Both Stewart and Ward played key roles last year as the Broncos' defense dominated to win the Lombardi Trophy for the third time in franchise history. Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. was adamant that their two different personalities helped the secondary gel as every member brought "something different to the table." 

For a defense to be successful, Harris says the team needs a safety that can "strike some fear in guys." And now, Harris says, the Broncos have two. Off the field, Stewart is calm and quiet as Ward yells across the locker room to his teammates. In helmets and shoulder pads, however, Stewart plays like a man possessed.

"On the field, I think 'Stew' keeps everyone calm and collected out there, and T.J.'s like the Tasmanian Devil, so you kind of need both," Harris Jr. says. "At the end of the day, they both will still hit you. That's one thing they have in common right there."

But when the two met at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine, their experiences to that point could not have been more different.

Stewart, who grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, played at South Carolina for the former face of the SEC, Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks won 28 games in Stewart's four years and won one of their three bowl appearances. Spurrier would soon deliver South Carolina three straight 11-win seasons, but the team was a work in progress while Stewart played in Columbia.

On the opposite side of the country, Ward found the success for which Stewart and Spurrier were searching. His high school, De La Salle (Calif.), was in the midst of a 151-game winning streak as he looked for scholarship offers. And while an injury during his senior year forced Ward to walk on at Oregon, he worked his way to a 2008 Pac-10 Honorable Mention nod and Holiday Bowl win. Then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly took over before Ward's senior season and led the Ducks to a Rose Bowl berth. 

Both Ward's and Stewart's performances earned them invites to Indianapolis, where they got to know each other for the first time. Stewart met a player he would later describe as cool, funny and someone who anybody would love. And in Stewart, Ward saw a player who was a "quiet, humble, hard-working, God-fearing, family man."

The two would go their separate ways when the draft handed them different results. The Oregon product was drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the 38th overall pick, while Stewart went undrafted and was picked up by the Rams.

They played each other just once during that span, but Ward knew enough about Stewart's playing style that he wasn't surprised by his soft-spoken teammate's hitting ability when they joined the Broncos in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

"He's a quiet bomb, that's what he is," Ward says. "He don't say too much, but when he hits your ass, it's gonna hurt. Trust that."

Stewart's solid performance at the free safety spot helps the Broncos mix man and zone coverages and allows Ward to continue to play down in the box, just as he's done his entire career. From that spot, Ward has made a living on hard hits and big plays. He was there to scoop up a Cam Newton fumble in the Super Bowl that he almost returned for six points, and he picked off another pass when he dropped into coverage.

In the early stages of 2016, Ward's playmaking ways have continued. Stewart praises his ability to blitz and calls his tackling ability "off the charts." Ward's forced three fumbles thus far, including one against Houston when he blasted the ball away from running back Alfred Blue

Who hit Blue first to put Ward in position to make the play? None other than Stewart

"Stew's been my best partner that I've shared the secondary or safety backfield with," Ward says, "and it's been great this last year and a half. We're on the same page with a lot of things. We play similar. We both have aggressive styles."

That paid off again Sunday as Ward and Stewart each tallied an interception against the Chargers.

Perhaps most terrifying for opponents is that Ward and Stewart have proven themselves essentially interchangeable. Stewart can drop into the box at a moment's notice, and Ward can line up at free safety. That versatility "makes it so much easier" for the defense to thrive, Ward said. 

"We know that at the end of the day, we're all trying to win," Ward says. "We're all trying to be the best possible. That's what happens when you bring Chris and me and Talib and 'Stew' and Roby. You've got guys that have enough experience and still have that hunger and drive to be the best, and that's beautiful."

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