However, their defense has had trouble slowing down opponents this year. They have played most of the season without All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, as he continues to battle a foot injury he suffered during the preseason. He’s only played in three games so far this season, and Bailey has not looked like his old self.
Bailey may now finally be close to full strength, and he is expected to be back in the lineup this week against the Houston Texans.
On Thursday, Broncos head coach John Fox talked about keeping Bailey healthy now that he’s back:
It’s hard. They clear them medically. No. 1 for us is player safety so we’re not rushing them out there as far as going against what our doctors and trainers say by any stretch. But it’s hard for coaches to tell the difference between a guy being healthy and being ready. So that was what that rush back was then. He’s had a good week thus far and we’ll see how it works out this week.
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio had several positive things to say about Bailey after practice on Thursday.
First, Del Rio liked having the veteran corner back on the field, saying, “Yes, good to have him work. Have worked him back in through this week. [He was practicing] on a limited basis leading up to this week but good to have him back at full speed.”
Del Rio also noted the team has to be careful with Bailey so they don’t re-aggravate his foot injury. “I think the biggest thing is just to come out and work and compete and get through that. Anytime you’re dealing with an injury there’s a physical component where you have to heal and then mentally you have to put the work in and develop the skill again or kind of sharpen up the skill again and that’s really where we are.”
Even though Bailey has missed 12 games this year, Del Rio said the veteran has been taking mental reps on the sidelines: “He’s very strong mentally and that’s why he’s been such a great pro. He’s been a tremendous player for a long, long time and you don’t do that if you don’t have tremendous resolve and commitment and dedication in those things, and that’s what we’ve seen.”
Del Rio wrapped up the questions about Bailey by succinctly saying “we need him.”
That statement is right on the money.
In order to win a Super Bowl, the Broncos need their defense to play better. Having a healthy Bailey back on the field should do just that.
It’s been clear over recent weeks that rookie corner Kayvon Webster has become a target for opposing quarterbacks.
Webster is very aggressive, and he can often run himself out of a play due to this attacking mindset. He’s constantly looking for the big hit instead of focusing on coverage techniques and looking for receivers to tip off their routes.
In the play below we see Webster miss a tackle on a touchdown catch by fellow rookie and San Diego Chargers wide receiver, Keenan Allen.
Webster was covering Vincent Brown on the outside, but came over to bring down Allen after a catch and run. Webster goes low for the tackle, and Allen posterizes him.
Bailey is one of the best tackling corners in NFL history. He likely would have brought Allen down before he crossed the goal line.
In this play we see Webster with tight coverage on another touchdown grab by Allen. Webster establishes good position and San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers makes a fantastic throw.
The rookie needs to know that he’s going to be picked on in the red zone. The coverage was great, but he needs experience to improve his anticipation and ball skills.
Bailey has such experience; he would have made a well-timed swipe for the ball to break up the play.
This next play shows a route that San Diego hammered Denver over the head with. Again, Webster is getting picked on by Rivers and company.
Eddie Royal was able to get open on this route a few times against Webster in Week 15. It’s a simple sideline route just past the first-down marker.
Bailey would have been all over Royal on this throw. Royal is not known as a great route-runner, and Bailey would have been able to anticipate based on down and distance.
Not all grades were negative on Webster. Bailey had some positive things to say about the rookie’s performance against the Chargers:
I think he did well. You’re going to have games like that at corner. People are going to come at you; you’re young. I thought he did pretty well. It wasn’t like he was just beat, he was right there. If just a couple of things go his way, it’s good plays, then we’re talking good things about him. Right now he’s got something else to deal with—his thumb—we can’t wait to have him back.
Bailey has always been very kind to the media. He’s a great interview, and will clearly speak his mind. Bailey doesn’t mince words, and he most often tells it like it is.
He felt good after practice on Thursday, saying, “It [practice] felt good. I’ve actually had a couple of weeks; I’ve just been progressing to this point. But I feel real confident in what I can do out there so I’m ready to go.”
Bailey has a good feeling about his baseline speed and quickness, and expectations are high when a player has Bailey's credentials:
I always practice hard, so that’s the way I am. I do feel like I do still have my speed and my quickness—I have to in order to be able to play out there...I feel good about what I can do. I think now it’s just being smart about how I go about doing it and making sure I don’t have any setbacks and I don’t wear myself down or anything like that. The good thing is I’m fresh, I’m ready to go. I’ve had some time off and I’m ready to go.
Bailey is one of the most competitive players on the Broncos roster. It’s been tough for him to watch his teammates from the sidelines: “Regardless of how we’re playing it’s hard to watch. But I do what I can to help these guys get prepared every week, that’s what I’ve been doing. I still do the same thing this week, except I’ll be out there. I’m looking forward to getting out there and helping them while I’m on the field.”
Perhaps most importantly, Bailey has regained confidence in his injured foot, saying, “Yeah. The more time I’ve put in on the field in practice, it’s helped me build that confidence back up. It’s just like any other injury, you’ve got to feel good about going back those first few days or whatever it is, and I feel good.”
In addition to his foot, the rest of his body is feeling somewhat fresh for this time of year. “My fingers aren’t banged up like they normally are this time of year. My shoulders don’t feel as bad. Those are the only things that have gotten a breather. My legs are still my legs. I’m 35, they feel as good as they’re going to feel right now (laughing).”
Champ Bailey is one day going to be in the Hall of Fame. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever been around in my 10 years of covering the NFL and the Denver Broncos. Bailey is a true professional who knows what it takes to play at a high level.
His return may go under the radar on the national scene. However, I feel getting Bailey back is absolutely critical for this team as they head into the postseason.
Having a veteran who has seen it all will benefit the younger players in the secondary. His return will be a boost for the entire defense.
The Broncos want to win it all this year. They have a better shot of doing just that if Bailey is on the field.
After this season, Bailey may return. He’s not yet thinking about retiring. “Oh no (laughing). I’m thinking about winning on Sunday.”
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Record and statistical information are provided via email from the Denver Broncos.