For the Denver Broncos, everything went wrong Saturday night. Despite two special teams touchdowns and a few beautiful passes from Peyton Manning, they found a way to lose. John Fox succumbed to his trademark conservative play calling and the secondary switched off, allowing three touchdowns of over 35 yards.
Between Fox’s decision making and safety Rahim Moore, whose inability to judge the trajectory of a deep pass allowed a 70-yard touchdown in the final minute of regulation, one player seems to be escaping some of the blame for the loss: cornerback Champ Bailey, who couldn’t keep Torrey Smith in front of him. And while the twelve-time Pro Bowler has surely earned the benefit of the doubt, if you were to pick out one performance that should worry the Broncos the most going forward, it would be his.
Jack Del Rio’s defense is built around the belief that Bailey can lock his man down in one-on-one coverage. While Darrelle Revis may have popularized the phrase, Bailey has been defending “on an island” since the Jet cornerback was a teenager. This then allows the Broncos to successfully defend multiple receiving threats as Bailey matches up with the number one target, while Denver’s safety is able to help over the top on the other side of the field.
Additionally, Bailey’s status as physical back who is unafraid to make tackles frees up his front seven. Based on the faith that he will cover their respective zones, Broncos linebackers were free to take risks and, as a result, flourished. Von Miller racked up 18.5 sacks and Wesley Woodyard added in 5.5, as well 117 total tackles. The two of them helped make Denver the second ranked defense in the league, the best mark in team history.
In the week leading up to Saturday, Bailey spoke about his plans to shut down Smith; his plan was to counter Smith’s speed with physicality at the line. Smith, however, was simply too fast to even be bumped off his route. “I just ran past [Bailey],” he told the Baltimore Sun. Once Bailey was beaten the first time, he had to drop off the line and cushion his coverage.
With the chance of physicality gone, Smith was able to make more big plays. With Bailey in a dead sprint, determined not to be beat vertically again, he was unable to stop his momentum as Smith leapt for an underthrown ball. “I probably could have had four touchdowns,” the receiver was quoted as saying. Smith finished with three catches for two touchdowns and 98 yards on six targets, and would have had more if Joe Flacco didn’t overthrow a wide open post route.
Recently, a good deal of Bailey’s success has been based on respect. Opposing teams are hesitant to challenge the all-pro corner, preferring to work on the other side of the field. His nine passes defended in 2012 were the fewest he recorded in a full season since 2003. The only time in his career he defended fewer passes was in 2008, when he only played nine games.
The NFL is an extremely adaptive league; if one particular look has success, other teams will try it (i.e the wildcat). Based on Smith’s success attacking Bailey this weekend, teams will surely try to exploit him with a quick receiver in the future. Respect and fear will be replaced with challenges.
If Bailey does not live up to those challenges, the Broncos formidable defense will have to adjust. If safety help is needed, the entire defensive scheme is thrown off. While Denver’s other cornerbacks are legitimate defenders, they’ll surely miss the extra cover if Bailey needs assistance for the first time in his career.
For all we know, this was just an off game for a great player. It could, however, mark a shift in the way teams attack the Broncos and in turn a change in defensive scheme. With that being said though, if any defensive back will be ready for teams to throw at him more frequently, it’s the Champ.
Joe Kozlowski is an editorial intern for TDdaily. Follow him on Twitter @koz2393.