Cornerbacks provide strength for Denver, Oakland
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
OAKLAND, Calif. ” When the Oakland Raiders acquired DeAngelo Hall to team with Nnamdi Asomugha, the talk around the team was about having the NFL’s top cornerback duo.
Yet when it comes to the best individual cornerback in the league, even most of the Raiders agree that player resides in Denver.
The extremely confident Hall was one of many Raiders who called Champ Bailey the top cornerback in the game. Coach Lane Kiffin went even further in his praise for the eight-time Pro Bowler.
“He’s perfect the way I look at it,” Kiffin said.
An intriguing subplot to the season opener between the Broncos and Raiders on Monday night will be the play of each team’s outstanding cornerbacks. Before Hall joined the Raiders in March, Bailey and Dre’ Bly were widely considered the best duo.
Now it’s up for debate.
“Without a doubt, their two corners and our two corners are the two best tandems in the league,” Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley said. “But going up against these guys that we have here every day in training camp, we don’t see any better than that.”
If there is a weak link among the four starting cornerbacks, it’s probably Bly, who was burned deep a couple of times last year against Oakland.
Asomugha has emerged the past two years as one the best, intercepting eight passes in 2006 and then barely getting challenged last year.
Asomugha estimates he only had about two passes a game thrown his way last year as teams frequently picked on Stanford Routt or Fabian Washington on the other side of the field.
Now that Hall, a two-time Pro Bowler with 17 interceptions in four seasons, mans the left side of the defense that could change as quarterbacks will have a tougher time deciding which cornerback to focus on.
“I’ve tried to play it in my head,” Hall said. “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me if he leads with 10 and I get zero or vice versa. As long as we win games, that’s all I worry about. He’s going to get a chance to get the ball, I’m going to get the chance to get the ball. It’s not going to be just throwing the ball to one side of the field this year.”
Then there’s Bailey. It took Kiffin only two series in his first game coaching against Bailey last season to witness his greatness firsthand.
Seeing Bailey isolated one-on-one against Jerry Porter without safety help, Kiffin called for his receiver to use a double move to go deep on a third-down play. Bailey stayed with Porter stride for stride and intercepted the pass from Josh McCown.
After watching that play, Kiffin doesn’t subscribe to the theory that an offense can get out of whack if it refuses to challenge a talented cornerback.
“We went at him up there in the first game and we didn’t mess up our offense, we just threw a pick to him,” Kiffin said. “I think I’d rather err on the other side of it. … There will be times when the ball will go over there, but the ball will go left more than it will go right.”
What makes Bailey and the Raiders’ duo so good is that they so often are asked to play man defense with little or no safety help.
Yet even one of the best cornerbacks ever knows there’s only so much one player can do outside on an island without help from his teammates.
“You could have the two best corners in the league and no pass rush and you don’t even know you have the two best corners,” said Hall of Famer Mike Haynes, who teamed with Lester Hayes in the 1980s to give the Raiders their best duo ever. “Because everybody given enough time can get open. And every quarterback given enough time can wait and get the ball to the guy when he’s open.”
The problem this week for the Broncos and Raiders offenses is that both have major questions at receiver.
Denver will be without Brandon Marshall, suspended for the opener for violating the league’s personal conduct code. Marshall was the only consistent outside threat for Denver last year, catching 102 passes for 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns.
Without him, the Broncos are left with Stokley, rookie Eddie Royal and newcomers Darrell Jackson and Keary Colbert.
“Without our best playmaker out there, it’s going to be difficult,” quarterback Jay Cutler said. “We got a rookie with Eddie playing. And then we got D-Jack, it’s his first year in this offense, so he’s still learning. So it’s going to be a struggle.”
The Raiders aren’t in any better shape. Former Bronco Javon Walker has been slowed all week by a hamstring injury. Walker practiced Saturday and said he was ready, but even so, he has struggled since signing a $55 million contract in the offseason.
Ronald Curry was inconsistent last season, and the other four receivers on the roster combined for just 16 catches in 2007, including 10 by Ashley Lelie, who practiced with Oakland for the first time on Wednesday.
That could make it tough for JaMarcus Russell to find many open opportunities on the outside in just his second career start.
“It’s going to be a lot of work for me,” Russell said. “Working against Nnamdi and DeAngelo at practice, you get so many looks from those guys and they’re around the same area in terms of experience.”
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