All the hype around this year’s Super Bowl seems to be focused on the league’s No. 1 offense facing off against the No. 1 defense. And while Seattle’s secondary earns heaps of praise (and rightly so), Denver has some stars in its secondary too.
With Chris Harris out of the lineup after an ACL tear in the divisional round, we saw a thoroughly overmatched Quentin Jammer thrust back into the lineup to promptly get torched by his former team. Jammer’s subsequent benching meant that after a year littered with nagging injuries, Champ Bailey has finally returned to full-time play.
On the field for over half the defense’s snaps for the first time since Week 6, Bailey came up big but in a quiet way, allowing just one catch for four yards in 42 coverage snaps against one of the league’s best quarterbacks. This is a good sign for Denver fans, as it may mean that Bailey is back to the elite level of play he’s exhibited over his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career.
Traded to the Broncos from Washington in 2004, Bailey wasted no time in rewarding Denver, tallying 21 interceptions over his first three years with the team, eventually setting the franchise record with 34. But after a season derailed by injury in which he played fewer than 200 regular season snaps, Bailey’s future may be in question. He’ll turn 36 next summer, practically ancient by cornerback standards, and is set to make $10 million next year alone. Whether it’s retirement, restructuring, or release, this Super Bowl has the potential to be the first ballot Hall-of-Famer’s last game.
Also with a future in question will be the man starting opposite Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Drafted nearly a decade after Bailey, Rodgers-Cromartie has had a tumultuous career to say the least. Drafted in the first round back in 2008 by Arizona, Rodgers-Cromartie took over the starting job at corner midway through the Cardinals’ 2008 Super Bowl campaign.
Despite tallying 13 interceptions and scoring four touchdowns in his first three years in Glendale, the Cardinals had soured on the young cornerback and sent him packing to Philadelphia as part of the Kevin Kolb deal, where his play suffered as part of the ‘Dream Team’ fiasco. As a free agent last spring, Rodgers-Cromartie signed a short-term deal with Denver and has proved a valuable addition.
Though his playing time has been inconsistent, Rodgers-Cromartie has been anything but. Not once during the regular season did he allow more than four receptions in a game and he’s played particularly well in the latter half of the season. He surrended just six catches through the season’s final eight weeks, despite playing 186 coverage snaps over seven games.
That late-season reception rate of one catch every 31 coverage snaps is an outstanding figure we haven’t seen since the days of Nnamdi Asomugha back in Oakland (30.6 for the whole season). Even if you don’t cherry-pick his good games, Rodgers-Cromartie allowed a catch on average every 15.7 coverage snaps for a full year’s work. It’s worth noting that the only corners who did better in that regard were a couple of guys named Sherman and Revis.
So Rodgers-Cromartie has been superb this year, and Bailey appears to be returning to form, but what does that mean for Denver’s defense? The impact that these guys have will depend somewhat on how Jack Del Rio chooses to play them. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be seeing either one collapse the pocket and take down Russell Wilson very often, as the duo has combined to rush the passer on all of 10 different occasions over a combined 784 passing plays this year.
Which leads to where we would expect to see them lined up in coverage. Harris was the primary slot corner when the Broncos shifted into nickel defense, and it looks like Bailey will do the same, while nickel corner Tony Carter is put on an outside receiver opposite Rodgers-Cromartie. They have, in the past, had Bailey journey across the formation to track a team’s best wide receiver like in 2012 when he played significant time at both left and right corner in 13 of his 18 games. But even last year Denver was hesitant to have Bailey slide inside, covering the slot on just 2.3% of passing plays in 2012.
Don’t expect that to be the case on Sunday, though, Bailey has been lined up over the slot receiver 45% of his time this year. As it stands, Rodgers-Cromartie will likely line up at right corner and Bailey will likely lineup at left corner, moving inside when Carter trots onto the field in the nickel, though with injuries, benchings, and Bailey possibly shadowing someone, it will be impossible to know for sure.
So should Bailey track someone? The obvious choices would be Golden Tate or perhaps Percy Harvin, and while both are talented players, I don’t think either quite demands the respect of having their own personal escort around the field. While supremely dangerous with the ball in his hands, Harvin has played only 19 snaps this postseason before being re-injured against New Orleans. Tate has proven elusive, forcing more missed tackles (23) than any other receiver, but his five receiving touchdowns and 942 yards are far from intimidating numbers from a full-time starter.
In all, it looks like there’s a good chance to see both Bailey and Rodgers-Cromartie have their shot at each of the four receivers that Seattle likes to field (Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse being the other two). If Bailey really is back to playing at the same level that saw him selected to seven All-Pro teams, Seattle may be forced to pick on Rodgers-Cromartie, who will be performing in his final audition for what is shaping up to be a hefty contract this offseason.
At any rate, Bailey and Rodgers-Cromartie may be less touted than Seattle’s stable of cornerbacks, but they’ll have every opportunity to make their impact felt on Sunday.