How Champ Bailey's Absence Affects Broncos' Defense vs. Joe Flacco

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystSeptember 5, 2013

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 30: Cornerback Champ Bailey #24 of the Denver Broncos is surrounded by smoke as he emerges from the tunnel before a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 30, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Chiefs 38-3. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos kick off the 2013 NFL season on Thursday, with a rematch of a thrilling double-overtime playoff game that the Ravens won in January.

The Broncos are aiming for a measure of revenge in the season opener. However, that task isn't being made any easier by the problems facing the Denver defense, including an injury that will sideline the team's top cornerback.

As Mike Klis of The Denver Post reports, cornerback Champ Bailey will miss the game due to an injured foot, striking one more blow against a defense that has absorbed plenty of them this offseason.

Of course, given how Bailey performed the last time these two teams met, some fans may see his absence as addition by subtraction.

It's not a stretch to say that January's divisional-round matchup may well have been the single worst game of Bailey's 14-year NFL career.

That 153.3 quarterback rating that Joe Flacco posted throwing at Bailey? That's a nearly perfect score.

However, as horrific a game as Bailey had against the Ravens, it's not like it was the last performance in a bad year for the 12-time Pro Bowler.

In fact, as Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated pointed out at the time, Bailey allowed more touchdowns in that game than he had all season long.

Bailey's numbers also compared favorably to the other cornerbacks now in Denver, at least where Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) rankings are concerned.

That's enough looking back, however. The bigger question is: What do the Broncos do now?

The game plan against the Baltimore passing attack would appear to be simple.

  1. Stop Torrey Smith
  2. Stop Torrey Smith
  3. Stop Torrey Smith

With Anquan Boldin in San Francisco and Dennis Pitta on injured reserve, Smith is far and away Baltimore's most dangerous receiver.

Shutting him down is a huge key in this game.

Now, using their 2012 performance as a benchmark, the smart move would appear to be sliding Chris Harris (who graded out the highest of all Denver cornerbacks a year ago) outside to cover Smith, while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie draws Jacoby Jones and Tony Carter mans the slot.

One small problem with that plan. No one told defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, according to Klis.

I do believe we acquired a really good football player in Dominique. But we also have one that's going to be sitting out in Champ. We'll tee it up and play. I'm not really big on making predictions. I'm big on getting our guys ready to the best of their ability, going out there and competing.

Klis also mentioned in a blog post last week that were Bailey unable to go against the Ravens, "Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would figure to be the cornerback locked up against Torrey Smith."

Cue facepalm.

See, here's the thing about supposed "shutdown" cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

He hasn't shut anything down in a long time.

Rodgers-Cromartie built a reputation off of one great year (in 2009) that he hasn't come close to backing up. In 2010, he was PFF's lowest-graded cornerback in the entire NFL. He hasn't cracked the top 80 since that magical 2009 season.

Of course, starting Harris opposite Smith creates issues of its own.

Whereas Harris might well be a smarter and tougher cornerback, he doesn't have DRC's straight-line speed. 

Speed isn't a luxury when covering Torrey Smith. It's a necessity.

That means whoever is covering Smith will likely need help from the safeties.

Cue facepalm No. 2.

Denver fans all but certainly never want to see that play again, but it underscores a sobering fact: The Broncos safeties are the weak link of the defense.

With both Smith and Jones very much vertical-threat wideouts, Del Rio is probably going to run a lot of two-deep zone coverages. Rahim Moore and Duke Ihenacho have got to keep those receivers in front of them.

It may not stop completions, but it will at least keep those completions 20-yard passes instead of 60-yard ones.

Unfortunately, that creates problems of its own. Playing the safeties deep will open things up underneath, both for the short-passing game and on the ground. If Baltimore tailback Ray Rice starts picking up yardage in chunks, the safeties will start creeping up closer to the line of scrimmage.

That opens the Broncos up to getting beaten deep by play action.

The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that Denver's league-leading pass rush from a year ago has been decimated.

Of the team's 52 sacks last year, nearly 60 percent are either serving a six-game suspension (Von Miller) or playing for Denver's opponent (Elvis Dumervil).

If Derek Wolfe (who is playing through a sore neck), Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers can't generate some pressure on Joe Flacco, then Del Rio is left with two equally unappealing options.

The Broncos can keep trying to get after Flacco with the front four, while he picks them apart from the pocket. Any halfway-competent NFL signal-caller will with all day to throw.

Or, Del Rio can start sending blitzes, which means more man coverage and a better chance of being beaten downfield if the blitz is picked up.

It will likely be the latter, if for no other reason than it's better to get burned doing something than just sit back while a quarterback carves your secondary to pieces.

At this point, while the comments section for this article fills with all sorts of delightful descriptions of me, my football acumen and a whole bunch of other stuff I can't write here, I should probably mention that all is not gloom and doom for the Broncos.

It's possible DRC will play out of his mind and shut Smith down. Phillips may turn back the clock a few years and spend the entire game harassing Flacco.

Even if the defense struggles, the Broncos have the best trio of wide receivers in the NFL and a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback who spent more than a decade winning shootouts because his defense was less than stellar.

Believe me, Peyton Manning has had this date circled on his calendar since the schedule came out. He'll come out firing.

And that may be what it takes to win this one. The best defense the Broncos have for the Ravens may be their offense.

With everything I've said here, I still think the Broncos win a close, high-scoring game. They have plenty of reasons to want revenge for last year's crushing loss, and thanks to the Baltimore Orioles, the game is in Denver.

However, it's probably going to take three Manning touchdown passes and 30 points to get it done. There's just no getting around the fact that with Bailey out, three of Denver's four best defenders from 2012 won't be on the field (at least for the Broncos) Thursday night.

Not the best of news heading into a game with the defending champs.

Cue facepalm No. 3.


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