ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos won’t ask, but in all of the decisions they have to make in the coming days about how they deploy themselves on defense without Chris Harris Jr. in the lineup, there is one thing they shouldn’t do.
They shouldn’t move Champ Bailey. They should leave Bailey in the slot as the team’s nickel cornerback and mix-and-match on the outside.
Harris Jr. suffered a season-ending knee injury Sunday -- a torn ACL -- and no player in the team’s defense had been on the field for more snaps than Harris Jr. had been up until the point he was injured in the third quarter of the 24-17 victory against the San Diego Chargers.
Harris Jr. played 1,042 snaps on defense in the regular season, the most of any Denver defender. He was one of just two players -- linebacker Danny Trevathan was the other -- to even top 900 snaps in the regular season. So, it is no small consideration, in January, days before the conference championship, for the Broncos to figure out what they want to do next.
Especially when you look at Harris’ impact on Sunday’s game. Looking at the video, it appeared Harris was injured on Keenan Allen's first catch of Sunday’s game -- a 19-yarder on a third-and-3 play with just under eight minutes to play in the third quarter.
To that point, with Harris Jr. in tow plenty of the time, Allen did not have a catch and had been targeted just once -- an incompletion -- by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers before that reception. After Harris Jr. left the game, Allen had five receptions for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
The Broncos used Quentin Jammer in Harris Jr.'s spot to close out the game and it didn’t go well. Jammer, after not getting all that many reps in practice in the defense last week, was decidedly out of sorts. Certainly some of the issues were speed related for a player in his 12th season at a speed-first position.
But there were some basic positioning/footwork things Jammer has done far better this season, including several snaps when he was simply late to make the change out of his back-pedal against a player with the kind of explosiveness Allen has. And Jammer has played some quality snaps as an early down option in the team’s base defense when they wanted a little more size in the formation.
Though rookie Kayvon Webster, who is playing with a cast on his surgically repaired right thumb, has been targeted at times by opposing quarterbacks, he hasn’t had a lost season as some have framed it. He has upper-tier speed, usually plays with good technique with his hands, and has battled snap-after-snap despite the attention he’s gotten when he’s found himself in man-to-man coverage.
If the Broncos mix--and-match on the outside, they can put the help there, because Bailey can play inside on his own. It has been a quality move for him and the defense. And with the Patriots using their top receiver, Julian Edelman, in the slot about 45 percent of the time this season, it would put Bailey in position to square off with Edelman on those premium snaps.
As you would expect from a player with his anticipation and intellect, Bailey has played well in the slot. And there is more than one defensive coordinator in the league who would argue, because of the structure of passing attacks in the league and the variety of players who line up in the slot in terms of speed and power, that the slot corner is one of the most important players on the field.
There are some scouts, as well, who believe it might be the most difficult coverage player to find. Because things happen so quickly inside -- the time between snap to throw -- it take players with quick minds, who understand offensive concepts, and quick feet who are also strong enough to put up with, and handle, all of the contact on the inside.
In their 17 games thus far, Sunday’s included, the Broncos have held opponents to fewer than 300 yards on offense in four games. Bailey has played out of the slot in three of those games. To play Bailey as a nickel cornerback, the Broncos can also keep a pitch count of sorts on a player they need and who has played in just six games this season, Sunday’s included, because of a left foot injury.
Though the Broncos have plenty of folks with plenty of years on their football resumes to make the call, from here it looks like the one to make is to have Bailey keep doing what's he's doing, because it's been good for everybody and the Broncos don't have anybody else who can do that job like he can.