- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

While much was being made early this season of Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington's struggles to learn a third defensive system in three years with the Washington Redskins, teammate Champ Bailey was quietly showing that he has become perhaps the NFL's top cornerback. Never mind that Bailey is in his fourth scheme in four years as a Redskin, one that required him to sacrifice as much potential individual glory as Arrington.

Instead of shadowing the top opposing receiver as he did last season in former defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer's system and as mentor Darrell Green did for more than a decade under coordinators Richie Petitbon and Ron Lynn, Bailey has spent much of this year in the slot. New coordinator Marvin Lewis prefers zone coverage, so Bailey hasn't been around the football as much as when he spent Sundays locked on the Rod Smiths of the NFL.

"If they convert a third down or catch a long pass, it's frustrating," Bailey said of not always being on the top threat. "You want to be the guy to try to stop that. Maybe things could be a little different, but I think we're doing fine."

Where Bailey had more than three times as many passes defensed as fellow corner Fred Smoot did in 2001, Smoot has 18 this year to Bailey's 16 for the 10th-ranked pass defense.

So the gleam in Bailey's eyes was apparent after he spent most of last Sunday in a one-on-one battle with Amani Toomer, the New York Giants' No.1 receiver. And Bailey has that look again this week with the knowledge that he'll likely be locked up this Sunday with an outstanding St. Louis receiver, probably four-time Pro Bowl wideout Isaac Bruce.

"It makes you feel good about yourself when you go out there and shut a guy down," Bailey said. "You move when he moves. You stop when he stops. I love it. When they told me on the sideline last week that we were going to play a lot of man-to-man, I was really happy. That was more man-to-man than we ever played. If I'm on [the top receiver], I know he's not going to beat me for a touchdown. I feel like he's not going to catch a ball. I have confidence in the guys around me, but I feel like I can do it better than anybody."

Rams coach Mike Martz concurs. saying, "Champ has everything you look for in a great corner. He's a very patient guy, a very physical corner. He's a prototype. He's the best."

Lewis agrees but isn't planning on making a permanent change in how he uses Bailey, even if he puts his ace on Bruce with Smoot covering the equally talented Torry Holt. The New York game was an anomaly because Toomer was the Giants' only healthy, proven receiver.

"Champ did an excellent job last week," Lewis said. "We played more man-to-man than most teams ever do. I don't know if you can shut the Rams down. You just hope to contain them. They do a tremendous job of giving you a lot of different looks and mixing their personnel. They try to use their exceptional athletic talent to put you in bad matchups."

Two years ago this week, Washington upset host St. Louis 33-20. Bruce and Holt combined for nine catches and 216 yards, but they didn't reach the end zone against Bailey and Deion Sanders. Slot receiver Ricky Proehl and running back Marshall Faulk caught the touchdowns.

"Champ is the finest cover corner I've ever been around," said Lewis, who coached in Pittsburgh during cinch Hall of Fame corner Rod Woodson's prime. "He's so pure and smooth. Champ's so quiet, but he's a competitive guy. He gets upset when I call a zone."

With second-year man Smoot still unpolished and nickel corner Green over the hill at 42, why not put Bailey on the top threat and focus on shutting down the rest of the opposing passing game with manpower? After all, Bailey seems a lock for the third Pro Bowl selection of his first four years, one more than each of the best corners of the previous generation Green, Woodson and Sanders achieved so soon. And Bailey's still just 24.

"It's not that difficult to learn a system," said Bailey, a shy old-school type who's not one to criticize a coach. "I cover guys. I play a little zone here and there. I know what I have to do. It's about what the coach wants."

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