DENVER (AP) – Champ Bailey fretted he would no longer be the best bump-and-run cornerback in the NFL when he badly tore his left hamstring last season.

He was right.

Now, he’s simply the best cornerback – some say ever.

“I couldn’t run with a lot of people, so I started playing off,” the line of scrimmage, Bailey said. “And I realized how much more effective I was.”

In his new role, he was able to shut down more than just his man, he could contain half the field. He posted a career-high eight interceptions and effectively ended New England’s championship reign by returning a Tom Brady pass 100 yards.

What would he do for an encore?

How about an NFL-best nine interceptions and a league-leading 10 takeaways?

Bailey heard all about how he wouldn’t get many chances this year after his eight picks in 2005.

“I feel like when the ball comes over there, it’s mine. They’re throwing it to me, so that’s the attitude I have,” Bailey said. “Somebody brought that to my attention about the picks, and I’m like, ‘Look, it’s going to be hard for me NOT to get picks, the way I play.’ I mean, so I don’t care how many balls they throw, I’m going to have an opportunity to get every one they throw over there.”

Turns out that hurt hamstring was the best thing that ever could have happened to the Denver Broncos’ 28-year-old star whose 17 interceptions over the last two seasons are tops in the NFL.

“I think at first a lot of people thought, “What are you doing? You have a talent like this, you’ve got to have him up in peoples’ faces,’ ” said Broncos safety John Lynch. “But (secondary) coach Bob Slowik believes in it, particularly when you have a great player like Champ, who is not only a tremendous talent but understands the game and has great awareness and tremendous vision.

“Now, he shuts down his guy and can see the whole field and do things that are just unreal.”

Bailey and his coaches quickly discovered that his talents hadn’t been maximized by putting him so close to the line of scrimmage and allowing him only to take out his man, even if he was the best in the business at that.

“I think I can be bigger than that, just taking care of one guy,” Bailey said. “I can actually take care of one side of the field in different ways. I come up and make a big run stop. If I’m looking at the quarterback and he throws a ball to a guy who’s not my guy, I can still go and help out.”

Playing back allows him to see the field better, watch the quarterback to decode plays and read the tackles to decipher the runs. Now, instead of focusing on just one player and having to turn his back on the passer to blanket his man down the field, he can help out all over: coming up to stuff the run, moving over to help the safeties, blitzing into the backfield – all while still keeping his man in check.

“Champ was used to playing a lot of bump coverage and any time you can isolate a great defensive back on anybody, you feel like you can take a guy out of the game,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “But to get to the next level, a guy like Champ has to be able to play off where he can read the quarterback, read the steps of the wide receiver and use his intelligence to go along with his ability.”

But who in the world thought Bailey could top last year’s performance?

“I believed he was going to have more interceptions because he was just getting the hang of that technique, being back and using his vision,” Lynch said. “I thought the only problem would be people testing him.”

And?

“They haven’t really,” said Slowik, noting that Bailey’s been targeted on average just three times a game, about one-third the number of passes most cornerbacks typically see thrown their way.

“And that’s why I think he deserves Defensive Player of the Year,” Lynch said. “People don’t go at him and he still finds a way each and every day to have an impact. And if it’s not with an interception, it’s with a big tackle.”

The Broncos (9-6) can clinch a playoff spot Sunday against San Francisco thanks in large part to Bailey, who has a career-high with 92 tackles.

Lots of times, tackles are a misleading stat for cornerbacks because they’re giving up completions, just like a basketball player who gets his own rebound after an errant shot can pad his stats.

“That’s not his tackles,” Lynch said. “His tackles are in the run game, screens, things of that nature, just coming out of the stack and making plays.”

Denver defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said Bailey’s the best cornerback he’s seen in his 42 years of coaching. “I’m an old guy. I saw Lester Hayes, Night Train Lane, Mossy Cade, nobody close to this guy, nobody.”

Lynch called Bailey the “Deion Sanders of our generation,” but added an asterisk: “He’s a better player than Deion Sanders ever was because he’s a complete player. He tackles, and that’s important to him. It’s an awesome thing to watch. It really is.”

Lynch played with Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in Tampa Bay and “no disrespect at all to them because they’re two of the best football players I’ve ever been around, but their (award-winning) seasons don’t hold a candle to what (Bailey) has done.”

Bailey isn’t flamboyant like some of those others who have won top defensive player. Veteran receiver Rod Smith said that’s a product of his consummate professionalism.

“The character of Champ is probably more impressive than his athletic ability,” Smith said. “And he has more athletic ability than pretty much anybody on this planet.”

Which is on constant display now.

“Sooner or later,” Shanahan predicted, “they will quit throwing in his direction.”

Even that wouldn’t inoculate passers from his swipes.

Smith calls Bailey “Jedi” for his uncanny ball instincts.

“I think he’s Yoda’s son, because he knows where the heck the ball’s going before they throw it,” Smith said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, where are you going? That’s not your guy.’ He says, ‘The ball’s over there.”‘

Bailey loves playing back because it allows him to use his full range of talents and also keeps him healthy.

“I don’t have the fingers hurting all year from jamming,” Bailey said. “I do tackle a lot and that can shorten your career, but at the same time, my hands and shoulders feel much better.”

His hamstring, too.


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