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Surprise standouts: Defensive players who made unexpected impacts early in 2019

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Broncos enjoy their bye week, DenverBroncos.com will examine where this year’s team has been and where it is going.

Next up, we’ll take a look at a few players on defense who have made a surprising impact through the team’s first nine games.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather a glance at some of the Broncos who have created memorable moments early in the year — and who provide hope for the future.

KAREEM JACKSON/JUSTIN SIMMONS

Head Coach Vic Fangio may have cut his teeth coaching some of the best inside linebackers in the game’s history, but he and Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell have seen some impressive safety play during their careers. Last season, Fangio and Donatell helped Bears safety Eddie Jackson to his first Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections of his career. Adrian Amos, who lined up next to Jackson, also had a strong season in the Bears’ first-ranked defense.

In their first year in Denver, Fangio and Donatell have worked with another duo that’s leaving a mark on each game. Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons have combined to anchor the backline of a defense that ranks fourth in total defense and second in red zone defense. And while both players are long-time starters, it's been impressive how quickly the duo has jelled.

Both players have a penchant for the big play. Jackson returned from injury in Week 5 to bolster a defense that had given up 269 rushing yards the previous week in a loss to Jacksonville. Against the Chargers, Jackson led all players with 10 tackles, and he forced a goal-line turnover when he rocked Austin Ekeler at the 1-yard line right before halftime. Jackson’s hits have set the tone, and the former first-round pick has settled in at safety during his first season in Denver.

Simmons, meanwhile, may be having the best season of his young career. A 2016 third-round draft pick, Simmons dominated during training camp in Fangio’s turnover-friendly defense. That has translated to the regular season, as Simmons has recorded two interceptions through the team’s first nine games. He has already set his career high in passes defensed, as he's recorded nine pass breakups. His previous high was five passes defensed. Against the Browns in Week 9, he made a key tackle for loss on the Browns’ final drive. Simmons’ best attribute, though, is likely his availability. Since the start of the 2018 season, Simmons hasn’t missed a single defensive snap. His 1,582 consecutive snaps rank first in the NFL among defensive players.

Together, Simmons and Jackson have formed one of the league’s best safety duos. With nine games still to play, it’s fair to assume a more big plays are still to come.

ALEXANDER JOHNSON

A game-changing interception. Praise from an all-time great. League-wide recognition.

That’s the reality with Alexander Johnson at inside linebacker — and he’s only played five games.

Johnson — who got his opportunity to start when Josey Jewell missed a Week 5 game with a hamstring injury — has been a revelation at the inside linebacker position, and he’s likely the biggest surprise of the Broncos’ season.

Johnson signed with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent ahead of the 2018 season, but he appeared in just one game. This season, he’s made a far bigger impact. In his first start, Johnson recorded eight total tackles and intercepted Philip Rivers in the end zone to help the Broncos earn their first win of the season. Johnson was awarded the game ball in the locker room, and he responded by posting 1.5 sacks and nine tackles in a Week 6 win over Tennessee.

Former Broncos linebacker Al Wilson attended the win over the Titans, and he liked what he saw from his fellow University of Tennessee alum.

“When you watch linebackers, you always wonder if a guy is going to show up on film,” Wilson said in October. “And obviously, this is a guy that just shows up on film. He just seems to be around the ball, he just seems to make plays. Some of those things you just can’t coach. It’s just a natural God-given ability that he has, and he has that natural knack for the ball and instincts that you need to be a good middle linebacker.”

Johnson’s stellar play has only continued, as he added 13 tackles in a win over the Browns in Week 9. His October performance earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors from Pro Football Focus, and his 41 tackles are the most in team history by a player through his first five starts.

As Johnson gets more comfortable in Fangio’s system, Wilson expects his performance should only improve.

“If he continues to hone his skills and stay focused on what it takes to become a better middle linebacker and understands the intricate parts of the game, there’s no question he’ll be a Pro Bowl player in a year or two,” Wilson said.

DAVONTAE HARRIS

Ten weeks ago, Davontae Harris wasn’t even on the Broncos’ roster. Now, he’s a starting cornerback and played a pivotal role in Denver’s win over the Browns.

Harris’ play has meant a great deal to Denver’s secondary, which faced uncertainty after Bryce Callahan reaggravated a foot injury during training camp. Chris Harris Jr.’s production is hard to match, but it was also expected. The four-time Pro Bowler has been one of the league’s best cornerbacks year after year, but filling Callahan’s spot seemed like a more daunting challenge. De’Vante Bausby filled in admirably at first, but he suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5.

That’s when Harris was pressed into action. When Harris arrived in Denver, he aimed to be a special teams Pro Bowler. A few weeks later, he proved he could hold his own against receivers like Jarvis Landry. In Week 9, Harris broke up a Baker Mayfield pass in the end zone to prevent one score, and then he and Kareem Jackson converged on Landry on fourth-and-4 to force an incompletion and seal the win. Before those two game-changing plays, Harris had never recorded a pass breakup.

When the Broncos claimed Harris off waivers before Week 1, it’s hard to believe they imagined Harris would contribute in such a major way so early in his tenure. Harris, though, has been up to the task — and he’s proven he could be a piece of the Broncos’ secondary plans for the foreseeable future. 

“I think another seven games can turn me from like a rookie or like a first-level player to almost like a vet mentality,” Harris said. “I think one year in the NFL is huge for anybody, especially playing corner and especially playing around guys like K-Jack and Chris and Justin and just having those guys to learn from. Really, another seven games playing with them is going to turn me from a decent player to a good player. And then, eventually, I’ll be able to turn into a great player.”

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