Broncos finally have coveted shutdown corner
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Outside of Dove Valley, year-round home of the Denver Broncos, critics view the Clinton Portis trade to Washington as the steal of the new century. "Are you kidding me?" critics chime. Give Joe Gibbs a 1,500-yard back like Portis and let the Super Bowl begin.
At Broncos camp, the trade was a no-brainer, advantage Denver. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan looked no further than the first name of his main acquisition, Champ Bailey, to understand why he made the trade. Coverage cornerbacks mean championships. To further solidify the deal, Shanahan received an additional second-round choice who just happens to be a running back, Tatum Bell."I think it was a win-win for both teams," Shanahan said. "We wanted a shutdown cornerback. Champ was out there and it didn't look like he was going to re-sign. He's a natural leader and I love the way he played. For us, we could get a running back. Maybe he won't be as good as Clinton, but we couldn't go out and get that coverage cornerback."Champ Bailey had 18 INTs in five seasons with the Redskins.
In Bailey, Shanahan was thinking Champ-ionship. Like most great coaches, he does statistical studies to back up what he sees on the field. Under Shanahan, the Broncos create 1,000-yard runners. Since 1995, the Broncos have rushed for more yards than any other team, 20,150. Four different backs have produced 1,000-yard seasons in eight of Shanahan's nine years. He believes Quentin Griffin, Mike Anderson, Garrison Hearst and maybe even Bell can get them all the rushing yards the Broncos need.
Ah, but to win a championship? Shanahan felt he needed a Champ to make chumps of receivers attacking his defense. And, considering the heat he's taken for not winning a playoff game during the post-John Elway era, Shanahan wants to reinforce a Super Bowl formula that will bring a championship back to Denver.
"When I was in San Francisco, we were the No. 1 offense two years in a row, but we would go to Dallas in the playoffs and lose," Shanahan said. "Then Deion Sanders came over to San Francisco as a shutdown cornerback. The next year we won the Super Bowl. We had the same offense. Our defense was in the middle of the pack. But the big difference was a shutdown corner. You have to have them in the playoffs. You can't let people score points to win a Super Bowl."
Shanahan backs up his position by citing defensive trends.
"I think we have running backs that will fit in the system and do very well," Shanahan said. "So you have to make a judgement -- What's the best thing for our football team? If you take a look over the past 15 years, and you take a look at all the Super Bowl teams, if you don't have a defense that ranks in the top five in points given up, you can't win Super Bowls. That's just the bottom line. I think there were three exceptions in the last 15 years. I think one team finished eighth and that was us. Two teams finished sixth."
It would be interesting to see Shanahan's "Champ" philosophy face Joe Gibbs' rushing attack in the Super Bowl. Regardless, the Broncos believe they got the best end of the Portis trade with Bailey and Bell.
"You've got a guy in Portis who's done a lot of great things on the field, but you don't know if he's going to last as long as I am," Bailey said. "It's hard to find corners or at least one great one. When you've got a good corner, you've got a good defense. I hope not to disappoint him."
The 26-year-old Bailey has wowed the Broncos with his coverage skills. "He's amazing," quarterback Jake Plummer said. "He's made some plays in mini-camps that were just, wow. If you throw it up, he's going to knock it down."
During the first practice, Bailey, who presses receivers fearlessly at the line of scrimmage, broke up what should have been an easy, short out pass to Ashley Lelie. Bailey's make-up skills were incredible on that play. He's been doing that daily during the offseason program.
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Part of the problem was the types of cornerbacks on the field. Deltha O'Neal, a former first-round choice with incredible athletic skills, was a liability in man-to-man situations. It forced former coordinator Ray Rhodes to play more zones than he wanted and eventually led to his departure after one season.
Enter Larry Coyer, a scholarly, veteran coach who uses a pressurized defense. Under his direction last year, the Broncos finished fourth in yardage and trimmed 43 points off the 344 points allowed in 2002 under Rhodes. With the addition of Bailey plus tall, angular cornerback Lenny Walls and Kelly Herndon, the Broncos believe they have the coverage people to play man-to-man.
"We would like to be a four-to-five-man pressure type of football team," Coyer said. "We like to blend man-to-man and zone together. Really, we try to attack more rather than sit. You've got to be able to play man-to-man on big downs and not be afraid of it."
Since leaving the Greg Robinson scheme of the Super Bowl years which made Denver among the league leader in sacks and turnovers, the Broncos defenses of the past two years haven't had the big plays. They had only nine interceptions in each of the past two years. They've forced only 24 fumbles in two seasons.
Shanahan decided Bailey's coverage skills give the defense the ability to be more aggressive, particularly if Bailey can blanket an opponent's best receiver. To help matters, he signed veteran defensive leaders such as safety John Lynch and defensive linemen Luther Elliss and Raylee Johnson.
“ You've got a guy in Portis who's done a lot of great things on the field, but you don't know if he's going to last as long as I am. It's hard to find corners or at least one great one. When you've got a good corner, you've got a good defense.” —Broncos CB Champ Bailey
To do all of that, Shanahan had to sacrifice a little of his offense. Short 198-pound back Griffin is hoping to replace Portis' 1,500-yards of running and 5.5 yard average. Hearst and Anderson are veterans available if Griffin can't do the job.
"My job is to mostly react," Griffin said. "I pretty much run my best plays out of zone blocking. I don't like the toss plays as much, but I can run them. I just have to be consistent in this league."
Griffin showed the durability to survive 702 carries in three seasons at Oklahoma. "I did it (more than 20 carries a game) in high school, too," Griffin said. Watching the opening practices give hope he can average more than four yards a carry with the Broncos complex running style, which features extravagant zone blocking schemes among the guards and tackles.
"He's quick from side to side," Hearst said. "It's hard to see him most of the time. He hits the hole very hard."
The other worry is at wide receiver where Rod Smith is the only proven star. Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe retired, resulting in Lelie's promotion to the starting rotation and having Byron Chamberlain and Jed Weaver leading a five-man fight at tight end.
Since 1996, Shanahan has drafted 14 receivers, five in the first day of the draft. Most have failed. Despite showing flashes of potential, Lelie struggled since being a first-round choice in 2002. Despite more playing time because of McCaffrey's injuries last year, Lelie's reception total improved only from 35 to 37. He struggled catching the ball in the middle of the season.
Lelie worked in the weight room to get bigger and strong, but he still only weighs around the 195 he was last season.
"I wasn't consistent," Lelie admitted. "I've got to stay focused. I worked in the weight room to get more physical. I also worked on catching the football."
Eleven-year veteran Rod Smith believes in Lelie because he's working at it. Shanahan asks a lot of his receiver, which may be why a first-rounder such as Marcus Nash and third-rounders such as Chris Cole and Travis McGriff have failed. McGriff and Nash had to find their success in the Arena League.
"It's totally different as a starter when you are playing 60-to-70 snaps," Smith said. "It's not like when you are taking 30 to 40 snaps and they are pass plays. You've got to mix it up and get your hands stepped on or have linemen fall on you. There have been a ton of guys come through here at receiver."
Now, it's up to Lelie. His only problem? Going against Bailey during two-a-day drills. If Lelie and second-round choice Darius Watts do well against Bailey, maybe a championship will be in the cards.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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