In replacing Ronald Darby, backup corners know they will be tested
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Damarri Mathis knows that if he’s on the field in place of the injured Ronald Darby, an opposing quarterback will look to throw in his direction.
“I know teams look at it like, ‘He’s a rookie. Fresh meat,'” the rookie cornerback said with the self-awareness of a 10-year veteran. “But I’m just going to trust my technique and do what I need to do and be able to win my one-on-one battles.”
Michael Ojemudia experienced that during the joint practice against the Cowboys during training camp. With Darby injured then, he lined up at right cornerback. And he found himself targeted frequently by Dallas QB Dak Prescott.
This is — and will be — life for the cornerback playing on the opposite side of Pat Surtain. The second-year cornerback has not allowed a touchdown in his last 11 games.
Ojemudia spent the last five weeks on injured reserve with a dislocated elbow. He practiced Tuesday and Thursday and could be activated from injured reserve in time for Monday night.
“In terms of mental and football shape, I’m ready,” Ojemudia said. “I’ll try to get all the rust out in practice this week, but I’m definitely ready and confident this week.”
What the Broncos need for the balance of the season is for one of Ojemudia or Mathis to step forward. Mathis has the better long-term outlook; if he flourishes, he has three more years on his rookie deal remaining. Ojemudia, a third-round pick in 2020, sees his contract expire after next season.
Further, the ups and downs of training camp and preseason work appeared to have Mathis moving past Ojemudia just before the latter’s injury during the preseason defeat at Buffalo Aug. 20.
So, if it’s Mathis, the Broncos will hope that his palpable progress continues. His fill-in work against Indianapolis was a mixed bag, and a missed tackle in overtime proved costly as the Colts moved into range for what proved to be the game-winning field goal.
“I don’t think it was my best performance, but there’s a lot of film that I can clean up, so, that’s always a good thing to build on,” Mathis said.
The rookie felt that he could have done better making plays on the ball.
“A lot of times I was in good position, but just getting that ball out, and understanding situations and stuff, I can be better,” he said.
Still, it’s hard to overlook Mathis’ long-term arc. For a cornerback who came from a press-man system at the University of Pittsburgh, he’s settled in nicely executing the Broncos’ zone concepts, which have him playing off the line of scrimmage.
“It’s like night and day from when I first got here,” Mathis said. “I came from a press-man team, so just being able to play off, have vision on the quarterback, understand three-step quarterback drops and situational stuff. I’ve got more vision.”
And, Mathis feels, that will allow him to make more plays on the ball.
“You get to see the ball a lot,” Mathis said. “Like, when you’re in press, you don’t really see the ball. You just see the man. But having vision, it helps you make a lot more plays. You can tell when it’s run and pass quicker.”
As for Ojemudia, the Broncos drafted him in 2020 because of his scheme fit for the coverage concepts that remain the defense’s foundation. After an injury-filled 2021, he had trial by fire both against the Cowboys and against the No. 1 offense throughout preseason.
“I thought I was making strides through OTAs camp, preseason. I got hurt, but I think I’m still where I was at,” Ojemudia said.
A moment later, he added, “I don’t think I’ve lost a step.”
And whether it’s Ojemudia or Mathis, the Broncos are about to learn whether their young depth can pass the test and keep their defense aloft.