He’s 35 years old, 6'0" and 192 lbs, but Champ Bailey has shut down receivers a half a foot taller and 60+ lb heavier than he is. In all the years I’ve read and written on football, I’ve never seen anyone question Champ Bailey’s heart. This year, it was his foot that betrayed him - but we’re about to find out if his courage will be able to overcome it.
The Broncos secondary has been stretched thin, just as the playoff stretch is upon us. This year may be the last best chance that Champ has to add a Super Bowl ring to properly top off a storied career.
We knew that if he could walk, he’d be on the field. But where, many of us wondered, would he play? How could he best help the team?
He hasn’t had the reps, nor the trust in his foot, to handle his usual job on the edge. However, one technique that Champ has performed time and again is to take a trailing position on his assigned receiver and to reach around them at the last second, deflecting the ball away without violating the increasing tight strictures on what is considered legal contact.
Very few cornerbacks can or will do that as well, or as often, as Champ has. I remember him managing that feat in the end zone more than once, sometimes stripping away his opponent’s last chance to score while I shook my head in disbelief that someone would actually try and go after him with the game on the line. It was a loser’s bet.
That technique is often the answer to the question of how a slot cornerback can handle a bigger, stronger, and usually much taller tight end, and Bailey can teach master classes on it. Denver is fortunate to have Chris Harris, one of the most versatile young cornerbacks in the game, comfortable moving to the edge. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is more experienced than Harris, so they’ll be taking the edges with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie often handling the #1 receiver (Keenan Allen, in this case). Champ will be coming in for nickel and dime packages to cover the slot.
Bad foot or not, few slot receivers can outrun Bailey, who once ran a 4.28 at the Combine. He’s older now and he’s hurting, but it’s the playoffs.
I believe that he’ll put everything he’s ever learned on the line, and I’d expect him to be on the field for at least 30 plays tomorrow, unless the game is essentially over. Whatever tendencies or tells that Champ’s picked up on Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, or any of the Chargers receivers, I’d bet the rent that Champ’s already covered it with his fellow DBs this week.
"One thing I have noticed, and I think everybody has noticed, they limit the number of passes because their run game is so effective,” Bailey said. “When you run the ball that effectively, you get a lot of third-and-shorts and a lot of clock just running. So you don’t have to do as much in the passing game. They’re taking of advantage of it the old-school way. It’s been effective up to this point, so I don’t see them stopping.”
Prior to the Week 15 game against San Diego, I commented that my biggest concern was that the Chargers would get Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead going - which was a big part of what happened. Using Champ in the slot gives Denver a strong extra tackler in the middle if San Diego chooses the run, and a harassing presence for whoever’s going to try and get free in the slot if they go with the pass. Denver will monitor his reps carefully, but if the game is on the line, I think it’s likely that it would take a bulldozer and a skyhook to get Champ off the field.
Even players like Champ can have some rust to knock off, but he did get in 24 reps in the slot against the Raiders in Week 17, which is probably a few notches down from practicing against Peyton Manning and company. It did, at least, provide a game environment. He also put in 35 reps the week prior against the Texans, who aren’t playing any better than Oakland. Between those two games, he was targeted just five times in his 59 reps, for two completions and zero touchdowns. That’s not far from the Champ who was still shutting down edge receivers not that many games ago.
When you think about it, moving Champ to the slot may be the best possible use of his late career skills. The nickel package is the new base defense, and he’s available for dime packages as well. His comprehension of the game and ability to spot tendencies and communicate them to teammates in coverage may make the difference on one or even a series of key plays.
There are a lot of challenges to being outside,” said Champ, “but being inside I kind of get a feel for everything before it happens."
Harris and DRC have shown that they’re ready to take their own next, natural steps up into the national spotlight. Denver has learned the difference between making it into the playoffs and playing 60 minutes of playoff ball.
The ankle injury that kept Ryan Mathews from practicing all week may also limit the Chargers' ability to pound the ball. Champ, and nearly the entire Broncos team already knows what they are very likely going to experience.
Experience often is the difference-maker, the edge that playoff football requires with its increased pace, intensity, and unique focus. This could be the last time that Antonio Gates and Champ go up against each other.
Ladarius Green is an up-and-coming player, and Keenan Allen is sometimes played in the slot for much the same reasons that Wes Welker is - he’s small, tough, fast, dependable, and runs beautiful routes. Allen will be a handful, wherever they place him. I’m sure that Ken Whisenhunt will test Champ’s foot at times just to see if there’s a weakness there, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he responds.
This is the playoff run that Champ has been preparing for his entire career. With Peyton Manning, a stellar group of receivers, a peaking run game, and an increasingly tough defensive line, I expect a rough, gritty, exciting game. Knowing that Champ won’t be missing it sweetens the contest just that much more.