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High Expectations Follow Bailey to Denver

Cornerback faces replacing a Bronco star and turning around a defense that hasn't been right since consecutive Super Bowl victories.

August 29, 2004|From Associated Press

DENVER — The receiver fakes an out pattern and heads up the field, apparently on the way to a long reception or even a touchdown.

At the last second, Champ Bailey closes the gap, reaches up with one hand and pulls down an interception to the cheers of the crowd.

OK, so maybe it was just a practice in training camp, but it's the kind of play the Denver Broncos aren't used to seeing from a cornerback, and one of the reasons there's so much excitement in the Mile High City.

"Champ Bailey is a gifted athlete: gifted speed, gifted athleticism with a God-given ability to instinctively cover a guy," Bronco defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said. "It's difficult to match Champ Bailey with any other guy. There are only two or three other guys in this league that have that kind of skill."

But is he the kind of talent worth giving up one of your best players for? The Broncos think so.

Denver went into the offseason looking to revamp its defense after an embarrassing 41-10 loss to Indianapolis in the playoffs. At the top of the list was a shutdown cornerback, someone the Broncos could send out on the opponent's best receiver.

Bailey was the best in the league and available because of a contract impasse with the Washington Redskins, but the cost would be huge for the Broncos: Clinton Portis.

The flash-and-dash running back quickly established himself as one of the league's best players, running for more than 1,500 yards each of his first two seasons and earning a trip to the 2004 Pro Bowl. But Portis also wanted more money and the Broncos wanted more defense, so the blockbuster deal was completed.

Now Bailey faces replacing one of Denver's stars and turning around a defense that really hasn't been right since the Broncos' consecutive Super Bowl victories.

"I don't know what people expect," Bailey said. "I'm not going to put up 1,500 if that's what they're looking for. I'm going to go out there and do what I've been doing. That's all I can do."

It might be enough the way Bailey plays.

Blessed with unrivaled speed -- he reportedly was clocked at an astounding 4.19 seconds in the 40-yard dash -- and the kind of athletic ability that leaves even professional athletes in awe, Bailey is one of the league's premier cover cornerbacks.

A four-time Pro Bowler, Bailey had 18 interceptions in five seasons with the Redskins, including one for a 46-yard touchdown in his first game as a pro. But his impact reaches far deeper than just the balls he picks off or knocks down. Bailey has the ability to turn the opponent's best receiver into a nonfactor, and many teams are simply afraid to throw in his direction, essentially cutting the field in half.

In other words, he can completely alter a game plan.

"A guy like Champ is as close to a shutdown corner in this league as there is," said Oakland quarterback Kerry Collins, who saw plenty of Bailey in five seasons with the New York Giants. "He's the kind of guy who can take a receiver out of the game."

And the kind the Broncos hope can turn them back into Super Bowl contenders.

One of Denver's problems the past few years has been a weak secondary. Because there was always a fear that someone would get beaten deep, the Broncos were forced to stick mostly with basic packages up front. Unable to blitz, Denver couldn't get pressure on the quarterback. Forced to keep an extra man back in coverage, the Broncos couldn't play eight players up to stop the run.

Bailey changes that.

With him in the backfield, Denver will be able to blitz or load the box against the run without worrying about being burned over the top. And because Bailey can take away an entire side of the field, the Broncos will be able to roll a safety to help out on the opposite side.

"As far as the run defense, you can put eight in the box and not have to worry about it on the corners. That definitely will enable us to blitz more," Bailey said. "When you add a player like that, it just increases the things you can do."

The Broncos sure hope so.

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