Arguably the most hotly contested training camp/preseason battle of 2014 for the New Orleans Saints will be the for the number two corner back position. In a league where the passing game is king, shutting down the passing game can be a phenomenal ace in the hole. The Saints have at least three average to really good safeties in Rafael Bush, Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd. Add in Pierre Warren making plays in camp, and they seem all but set there. Keenan Lewis obviously has the number one corner spot locked up, having had a breakout game against the Eagles in last year’s playoff appearance.
But number two is, as of now, up in the air. Champ Bailey, Patrick Robinson and Corey White all figure to be the frontrunners to line up opposite Lewis, and their play in the preseason will ultimately determine who will do so. One could argue that second round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a dark horse to start, but in a training camp in which he’s been rough around the edges, it would take an outstanding preseason to seriously consider him a viable guy to cover the outside.
Champ Bailey is another corner that struggled with injuries throughout the 2013 season, only he didn’t do so in the black & gold, but rather as a Bronco. Perhaps the Saints most out of the blue signing of the 2014 offseason, Bailey was presumably picked up in order to bring some leadership to the Saints young corps of corners. Patrick Robinson, Corey White, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Keenan Lewis have 10 years of playing experience between them, compared to Bailey’s 14 years.
Videos have already surfaced of Bailey teaching the young’uns some technique at the position, but does he have it in him to make a run at the starting job? Robinson and White are big question marks, of course, and Jean-Baptiste likely needs a year as a package guy to adapt to the NFL speed. The real question is if Bailey can stay healthy, is it worth taking a chance on him?
In 2013, Bailey played only 5 games (a career low) with a hampering foot injury. When Chris Harris, the Broncos’ (arguably top 5) nickel corner went down with an ACL injury, Bailey filled his slot as a nickel back. He actually played significantly better in the slot as well than he had on the outside earlier in the season.
2012 was Bailey’s last full season as an outside corner. His stats aren’t necessarily reflective of how he played overall, but they’re certainly a step down from his storied career. Bailey had 21 stops on 57 passes his way, a stop rate of only 37%. On these plays, he gave up 9.7 yards per pass. The foot injury that hampered him throughout 2013 that relegated Bailey to a nickel position in the postseason actually may have helped him carve out a new niche, rather than lose an old one.
In the five games that Bailey played last season. The teams that attacked him generally did so through quick hitting routes. They would try to get their receivers into open field and try to make a move on him after that. The ravages of time are harsher on corners than nearly any other position in football, and even for the greats, time has to catch up eventually.
This play was a large part of the 2013 Denver defense. They’re running a stock Cover 3 defense with only one safety high and the corners sagging into mid. Bailey is going to be assigned the mid left area of the field on this particular play.
This is a clear-out play for Justin Blackmon, the inside receiver. Bailey has opened his hips inside in response to the play action from Chad Henne (a fake pitch to Maurice Jones-Drew) and Henne begins a rollout. Ace Sanders, the outside receiver, runs a skinny post towards the middle of the field to draw Bailey away from his zone.
One of the most important assets for a corner in zone coverage is the ability to read eyes. Sanders is well within Bailey’s zone, but Bailey recognizes that he’ll be able to pass him off to the high safety momentarily. Meanwhile, Bailey sees Henne looking at Blackmon on the underneath route. The outside linebacker on the play is late getting to his underneath zone due to the play fake. Corners have an ability to slow a play down in their minds. It takes a lot of patience to play zone, and Bailey sees what’s happening on this play before the rest of the defense.
With Henne winding up to throw, Bailey makes a decision. Henne is in mid-rollout, staring down Blackmon, and as such Sanders is essentially out of the play. Bailey makes a bee-line for Blackmon as Henne winds up to throw. If Bailey stays with Sanders on this play, Blackmon has daylight about 15 yards in every direction.
Bailey allows the completion, but breaks down in front of Blackmon to force a decision. Blackmon can either cut inside and run into the rest of the Broncos’ supporting defense, or try to make one move outside and cut up the sidelines for a potentially huge gain.
Blackmon attempts to cut outside, but Bailey dives at him, making a shoestring tackle and knocking Blackmon off balance. Blackmon is forced out of bounds after a 6 yard gain, which is quite a mitigation given the design of the play. Bailey is still one of the smartest players in the business, and he’s been around long enough that he can read any quarterback. The real problems come when his general athleticism is challenged. This play is a nice tackle, but it’s a Hail Mary dive. Bailey knew that Blackmon is more athletic than he is, he just did what he could to make the damage as little as possible. It was a high risk tackle.
This play is a rare example of Denver playing man to man coverage. There’s a chance it wasn’t even designed that way and it was reactionary to the oncoming play action, due to how rarely the Broncos played man when both Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were on the field.
Bailey never looks in the backfield for the halfhearted play fake, but rather keeps his eye on Reggie Wayne. This isn’t a delayed route, he goes right into the in. Bailey closes his hips towards the inside, while the rest of the defense reacts accordingly.
One underappreciated aspect of wide receivers is that they make a lot of decisions on any given play. Wayne gets tangled up with Bailey about 8 yards downfield, and he decides to break off into the 10 yard in route rather than continue towards the next level. Accordingly, Wayne disengages from his hold with Bailey and breaks inside.
By doing this, Wayne is able to undercut Bailey and get separation on the route. At the completion, Bailey actually has decent coverage on Wayne, but the throw is pinpoint and the Colts get 12 yards on the play.
After his return in the playoffs, Bailey filled in for Harris as the nickel back. Bailey likely wouldn’t have seen a postseason snap had Harris not torn his ACL, but sometimes adjustments have to be made, and Bailey simply came back at the opportune time to find himself a role in the Broncos’ Super Bowl bound season (Super Bowl appearance, at least. We know how it turned out).
Against New England, of course, playing the slot is a nightmare. Whether it was Wes Welker in previous years or Julian Edelman in 2013, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady love to utilize their inside guys.
Against the Patriots, the only real hope to disrupt Brady is to disrupt his receivers. Bailey lines up inside on Edelman on this play. Denver is running bump & run coverage across the board with one safety high.
One thing Denver did last season to combat the quick hitting Patriots routes was to reinvent the bump & run into a new thing called the run & bump. Bailey hops off the snap, giving Edelman 3-5 yards of space on the play. This tactic more or less forces him to run his underneath route, breaking off of the mid to deep options.
As Edelman runs his curl, Bailey engages him. Since it’s a stopping route and Bailey is looking at Brady as he’s looking at Edelman, it is significantly easier to claim incidental contact, despite the fact that Bailey is outside of the 5 yard range.
The red is where Bailey & Edelman are. The green is where the overthrown ball lands. Brady overthrows this pass out of necessity, with Bailey in position to undercut the curl or play the stop & go as needed. No matter what Edelman did on this play, he wasn’t getting open. Space for corners to work in can be just as important as space for receivers. Bailey exhausts every single one of Edelman’s options on this play, and the result is ultimately a throwaway from Brady.
The ultimate diagnosis on Bailey is extremely difficult. It would be silly to presume that he couldn’t at least compete for the number two spot, although it is possibly that the Saints want some more raw athletic talent out there, in which case they’d go for one of their younger guys. Bailey struggled in man to man on the outside last season, but he played the nickel very well in place of an injured Chris Harris, so perhaps that’s the best spot for him. The experience that he brings to the secondary is, of course, invaluable. Bailey may have lost a step, but he’s still one of the smartest corners in the NFL, which could be factored into the ultimate decision, especially in a team as scheme heavy as Ryan. Personally, I’d like to see Bailey start the season in a nickel capacity. If the young guys don’t pull their weight, he can transition outside. Bailey is too talented to waste in an exclusively mentoring role, regardless of age, and the Saints signing him was certainly a move to address an overabundance of youthful athleticism in their secondary.