(Eds: With AP Photos.)By ARNIE STAPLETONAP Pro Football Writer
Champ Bailey and Chris Harris Jr. are reversing roles down the stretch.
Bailey is playing in the slot. Harris is playing outside. And the protege is giving tips to his mentor.
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Bailey has missed 11 games this season with a nagging sprained left foot. When he returned to action Sunday at Houston for the first time in five weeks, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio kept Harris at left cornerback and used Bailey in the specialty packages as the nickel and dime cornerback.
Although Bailey has lined up in the slot at times throughout his illustrious career when shadowing a top-flight receiver, playing it full-time is a new experience for the perennial Pro Bowl cornerback who’s in his 15th NFL season.
So, Bailey found himself seeking advice from Harris, an undrafted third-year pro he’s taken under his wing.
”You know, it’s funny because I find myself asking him little things about coverages, mostly. Just what is he looking at, this and that,” Bailey said. ”He’s had so much time in there and he’s been so good at it, I’d be a fool not to look at him and ask him a few things.”
Harris certainly isn’t shy about sharing tips.
”Oh, yeah, I mean, I know the position so well and I consider myself the best at it, so I definitely can give him some of my little tips at it,” Harris said.
Even to a man many consider the pre-eminent cornerback in the game’s history.
”Yeah, that is kind of funny now that I think about it,” Harris said. ”But it’s a new position. He’s always been outside. I’ve always been playing it in Jack’s system so I know it the best out of anybody. That’s the reason why he comes to me.”
With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the right side and Harris on the left, the slot seems the perfect role to ease Bailey back into action. He played 35 of 67 snaps against the Texans, last week, enough to give him some confidence in his foot but not enough wear him down.
”I didn’t play as many snaps as I have in the past, so it felt pretty good to get my feet wet a little bit,” said Bailey, who has played just 12 quarters this season.
The Broncos aren’t saying whether they’ll switch Bailey and Harris for the playoffs, but this certainly is giving them the flexibility to do so based on matchups they’ll see in January.
”Right now it’s what we do,” Bailey said. ”Moving forward we’ll do what’s best for our team that week. The good thing is it creates some versatility across the board because now I can go in, Chris can go back in there at any moment. It just depends on matchups and things like that, if we want to switch it up we could.”
Bailey might get even fewer snaps Sunday when the Broncos (12-3) try to wrap up the top seed in the AFC playoffs with a win at Oakland (4-11) because rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster figures to play in the dime packages even though he’ll have a cast on his right thumb following surgery on Dec. 13 in which six screws, five pins and nine stitches were needed in an operation to repair two fractures.
Harris has started 10 games at left cornerback for Bailey this season and another on the right side when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was out with a shoulder injury, and he’s taken a liking for playing outside.
”On the inside, you have a lot more responsibility. They can run 1,000 routes compared to outside, you have kind of the sideline help,” Harris said. ”It’s a lot easier for me just playing outside, not having to play inside and communicate with safeties and linebackers. Outside I’m just on my own.”
Except when he’s giving advice to his mentor on the inside.
Notes: Harris was named the seventh annual winner of the Darrent Williams Good Guy Award. … As expected, WR Wes Welker was ruled out for Sunday’s game. He hasn’t played since suffering his second concussion in four weeks on Dec. 8. … DE Derek Wolfe returned to practice after missing a day with the flu. He hasn’t played since a seizure-like episode last month and will also miss the Oakland game.
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