It wasn’t too long ago that some had their head a mile high while pondering moving Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey to safety. They said he’d lost a step, that he’s simply better facing the play than with his back turned to it, and that he’s simply too old. You wouldn’t know it if you’ve isolated his play this season, which, by the way, has absolutely been of All-Pro caliber.
The pass has never been more popular than it is today and cornerbacks are at a premium, especially ones that can take away half of the field. On some occasions, Bailey is charged with doing just that as the Broncos isolate him mano-a-mano on wideouts and rotate coverage away from him despite Bailey being 34 years old. Age hasn’t slowed him down much, however. Admittedly, he has lost some speed, which proves the safety-proponents correct, but his technique and quick feet are still some of the league’s best, enabling him to age like fine wine. This was evident against the New Orleans Saints this past Sunday night when he shadowed and shut down Marques Colston, one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets.
There were many plays that Bailey made on Sunday night, but perhaps his finest were three successive ones that forced the Saints high-powered offense to go three-and-out.
Just inside the three-minute mark, the Saints had the ball on their own 16-yard line when Brees dropped back, scanning the field from right to left before checking down to his outlet, running back Pierre Thomas. Colston was one of his first reads, but he was blanketed by Bailey with relative ease. Bailey started by aligning head-up on Colston , with a wide base and his long-limbs hanging around his knees.
When the center put the ball into play, Colston took an outside release against Bailey, who immediately showed off his light feet as he mirrored and kept his hips closed — a mistake many young corners make — to ensure that Colston didn’t have a clear path for his release.
Ultimately threatened up the field, Bailey opened his hips up and continued to mirror Colston down the field by staying shoulder-to-shoulder, or as it’s commonly known in coaching circles, “in-phase”. It’s vital that Bailey does this to keep up with the receiver and then eventually, snap his head back inside to locate the ball. If he turns his head while not in-phase, he’s likely to give up a few steps and get beaten over the top.
But that didn’t happen.
What came on the next play was something that cornerbacks don’t typically like to do: tackle. Once again, that’s not the case with Bailey. He’s a tremendous tackler and fully understands his responsibility, which is a testament to his discipline as a run defender. Former defensive coordinator Larry Coyer noted this multiple times according to Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post.
“he’s not a good tackler, he’s an elite tackler … one-on-one, in the open, he never misses or if he does you remember it because you probably haven’t ever seen it before.”
With running back Darren Sproles taking a hand-off to his right and Bailey across the blocker, it was important that there was someone to set the edge on the outside. That someone had to be Bailey, as he was the furthest man out twho had the chance to force Sproles back inside. To do this, Bailey would have to work to the outside and disengage with Colston.
Bailey quickly shed the block of Colston and forced his way to the outside, setting the edge and also forcing Sproles to the inside…
At this point, he could have left the dirty work for his teammates but no, he insisted on involvement and made the tackle himself, taking Sproles down for no-gain.
The third and final play showed that even with his old body, Bailey is still willing to mix it up at the line of scrimmage with younger wideouts. Once again standing across from Colston, Bailey put his hands on the Saints receiver once the ball was snapped. Per the usual, Bailey did it with proper technique (“jam with your feet”), with his inside hand targeting Colston’s inside shoulder on an outside release, and he mirrored the stem of the receiver.
Once Colston developed his route pattern outside, Bailey once again matched him step-for-step and stayed in-phase while looking back for the ball.
Last but not least, Bailey did an excellent job to cut off a very difficult throw to defend — the back shoulder throw. Bailey did this by stopping his feet, looking back, and leaning into Colston to force him wider from the ball as he attempted to get in between the two.
This incomplete pass forced a Saints punt and concluded a trio of successive plays that depicted the great skills of one of the league’s premier cornerbacks. Bailey has received praise this season on multiple occasions, including from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
“Champ is one of those few corners in the league who can match up with anybody,” said Belichick. “He matches up against the Andre Johnsons of the world, the big, strong, physical, fast guys. Then he’ll match up against quick, real good route-running, quick receivers, guys like that, too. It doesn’t really make any difference.”
Belichick’s right. It really doesn’t make any difference who he faces because in the end, he’s going to make all the difference by shutting down the receiver and one half of the field.