With the New York Jets‘ Darrelle Revis severely injured and the Detroit Lions‘ Calvin Johnson playing as if he were seriously injured, a case can be made that the best cornerback in the NFL and the best wide receiver in the NFL will be on stage this weekend in Cincinnati.
The Cincinnati Bengals welcome Peyton Manning‘s Denver Broncos, looking to reverse their recent fortunes. If the Bengals are to stop their current three-game losing streak, it is imperative that AJ Green gets the better of Champ Bailey.
Both Green and Bailey are playing at all-pro levels. A number of receivers and cornerbacks in the league can claim to be the best at their respective positions right now, but the discussions undoubtedly start with Green and Bailey.
Even though they are at completely different points in their careers, Green is in his second season while Bailey has 14 seasons under his belt, it is almost impossible to predict who will come out on top in this matchup. Green has accounted for over 33 percent of his team’s passing yards this season as well as 28 percent of the team’s receptions. Green is undoubtedly his team’s leading receiver as he has also accounted for seven of the team’s 14 touchdowns through the air. Bailey, on the other hand, is only allowing 50 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed, while quarterbacks only have a 69.0 passer rating throwing his way.
Much more important than their statistics are their playing styles.
Green is a complete wide receiver. His long frame allows him to tower over defenders, but his athleticism means that he is still capable of running every route. Green is a hands catcher who can snatch the ball from the air in difficult positions, which allows him to make receptions even against excellent coverage. Even though he is not a big receiver, Green has no fear going over the middle and sustaining hits. He can out-muscle most defensive backs and is aggressive enough to fight for the football. If all else fails, he can simply outrun defenders with his speed or rely on quality route running to create separation.
Bailey is not the athlete that he once was, but having run a 4.28 in his younger days, he still has plenty of speed left to excel at this level. At 34 years of age, he no longer runs 40 yards in such a short time, but he has the intelligence, awareness and ball skills to cover any physical flaws in his game. Most important of any aspect of Bailey’s play is his physicality and aggression. Bailey plays press man coverage and won’t back down from the threat that Green poses. Bailey still plays the game on an island, trailing opposing offense’s best receivers. When a cornerback has mastered technique the way he has, he will always be able to be effective as long as his legs last.
In this game, Bailey should follow Green, but he may even get help from the Broncos’ other defenders. Unless Andrew Hawkins or Jermaine Gresham can establish themselves early on in the game, the Broncos won’t fear matching them up in single coverage to double or shift coverage towards Green. Bailey won’t want the help, but with it Green will be forced to fight for every reception he manages.
If the Broncos are able to give Bailey safety help over the top, the former first round pick at cornerback will be able to get into Green’s chest on every single play. Knocking Green at the line of scrimmage is normally a recipe for disaster, but a second defender lying in wait would force Andy Dalton to hold onto the ball for a split second longer. With a quality cornerback like Bailey, that split second would be more than enough to allow him to recover. Unlike Nnamdi Asomugha in Philadelphia, Bailey hasn’t lost his recovery speed.
At that point, Dalton would have a difficult decision. Does he force the ball to his favourite receiver, a receiver who is leading the league in receiving touchdowns, and risk throwing at a high quality cornerback in dangerously tight coverage? Or does he look elsewhere and force the offense through his other weapons? Realistically, that question will be answered by the performances of the Bengals’ receivers.
If the Bengals can force the Broncos to play straight up coverage, Green and Bailey become the marquee matchup that they should be on paper. While Bailey won’t be comfortable trying to jam Green at the line of scrimmage, he will play tight coverage from the snap of the football. Because Bailey has the physical ability to run with Green, the intelligence to react/read his routes and the physicality to fight him for the football in tight, this battle will have it all. If you spend the game just watching these two players, you will forget that you are watching a cornerback and wide receiver.
You will quickly realize that you are watching two complete football players, two of the best gladiators in the coliseum of the NFL.
Cian Fahey writes for RantSports, Irishcentral, Balls.ie and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf