ENGLEWOOD, Colo. –Week 9 pitted the Broncos secondary against one of the league's youngest and biggest talents at wide receiver in Cincinnati's 6-foot-4 A.J. Green.
This week against Carolina, cornerback Champ Bailey and Co. will face a unique threat in 5-foot-9 veteran Steve Smith, who remains a tough cover in his 12th season in the NFL. With 38 catches for 630 yards, Smith, a five-time Pro Bowler, is still the Panthers' top target. Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, an 11-time Pro Bowler, is one of a small group of defenders who could consistently be called upon to line up in man coverage on Smith.
"He plays bigger than he is, so he's really no different (than other No. 1 receivers)," Bailey said. "When the ball's up, he goes up like he's 6-foot-4. He runs the ball like he's 220, so he's no different. They guy's been amazing for the last 12 years. He's a special talent, and he hasn't fallen off at all."
The last time Bailey and Smith squared off, both were up-and-coming players back in 2003, Bailey for the Redskins and Smith for Carolina.
"He was tough," Bailey said. "I don't remember exactly how that game went, but he was tough. He was pretty much coming into his own at that point, making a name for himself, and so was I. He's one of those guys you just cannot sleep on. It doesn't matter how small he is. He will make you look bad."
With six seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving, Smith has established a reputation as one of the game's most feared pass catchers. McCoy, who coached Smith in Carolina from 2001-08, said one of the keys to slowing him down will be matching Smith's intensity on every snap.
"No. 1 is he's someone you've got to look out for every play," McCoy said. "He's one of the greatest competitors who's even been around, works extremely hard, and he's got a burning desire to be successful. You've just got to make sure you know where he is every play. He's going to come to play on Sunday."
HOMECOMING FOR MCCOY
Head Coach John Fox isn't the only member of the Broncos coaching staff with a great deal of familiarity with the Carolina Panthers.
Like Fox, Offensive Coordinator Mike McCoy spent nine years in Carolina before joining the Broncos. From 2000-08, with Fox at the helm from 2002-08, McCoy worked on the Panthers' offensive coaching staff in a number of roles, including passing game coordinator, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach. In that time, McCoy learned a number of valuable lessons from Carolina's offensive coaching staff.
"I was a young coach and I was very fortunate under (former Carolina Head) Coach (George) Seifert with a gentleman with the name of (former Carolina Wide Receivers Coach) Richard Williamson and (former Carolina Offensive Coordinator) Dan Henning. After Coach Seifert had left, John Fox had hired Dan Henning as a coordinator but Richard was with George and those were two guys I spent a ton of time with and really learned the NFL game. I've been fortunate my entire career in coaching, being a young coach, being surrounded by good mentors and that's the number one thing."
After nine years with the Panthers, McCoy left join the Broncos as the team's offensive coordinator.
"I was very fortunate working for their organization, working for George Seifert for a couple of years and being with Coach Fox for seven years," McCoy said. "My family and I were very fortunate to stay there for the nine years we were but in this profession, my wife and I have always said, 'Hey, we're not going to move just to move,' and the opportunity came to work here for the best organization in football so I couldn't pass it up."
While not downplaying his connection to the team he will take on Sunday in Charlotte, McCoy made it clear that his first priority to help Denver notch its fourth consecutive victory.
"The number one thing is, we're going to win a football game," McCoy said. "It's a business trip for all of us, but I must say it will be nice to see some of the old neighbors and spend some time with them."
MOORE COMING ALONG
Safety Rahim Moore talked throughout the offseason about improving on his play as a rookie a year ago. Midway through the 2012 season, his coaches and teammates praised his work ethic and continued development.
Adjusting to the complex nature of the pro game is always a difficult task for rookies. The learning curve was made even steeper because of last year's lockout, which prevented players from working out with teammates until the start of training camp. Bailey said a year of playing experience and the benefit of a full offseason has helped Moore make tremendous improvements in his second season.
"I really felt bad for any rookie that came in last year," Bailey said. "It was tough, because you had the lockout. You're trying to get to know your teammates, your coaches, and they were thrown right in the fire. That had to be tough. I don't think he ever got comfortable last year. Now, he knows his teammates, he knows the defense, and you just see him playing with a lot more confidence. He's one of the hardest workers on the team, so that definitely pays off."
With an improved understanding of his role in the defense, Moore has become one of the unit's most productive players, leading the team in tackles against Houston, Oakland and New England.
"He's grown throughout the time that we've been together," Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "He's done a nice job of preparing himself each week, understanding the things he needs to get done, the communication in the back end is key for us and then to be able to leverage and tackle. That's been a big thing. He's been able to do that well for us and has given us a lift. It's what we need our safeties to do and he's done a nice job improving every day and we still have a ways to go as a unit and I know he, himself, looks forward to playing better and better football throughout the year."
Moore's growth has helped the Broncos limit opponents to 221 passing yards per game, the 10th-fewest in the NFL. That success has come despite facing Pro Bowl quarterbacks in each of Denver's first eight games of the season. The strong performances on gameday have started with the efforts of the coaching staff during the week.
"(Secondary) Coach (Ron) Milus and (Assistant Secondary) Coach Sam Garnes, they're doing a good job preparing us," Moore said. "First, it starts with Jack Del Rio. He only expects the best. He loves you when you do well and when you do bad, he gets on you but that's what this game's all about and we embrace it and all we do is just try to go out there every week and give him what he wants."
Along with Moore, the Broncos' secondary has been bolstered by young cornerbacks Chris Harris and Tony Carter, who, like Moore, are making strides as they become more comfortable with the defensive scheme. The on-field production is also a result of countless long hours the group spent training in the offseason, dating all the way back to OTAs.
"It's our second time around," Moore said. "Guys are evolving but it starts with the hard work. It starts way back in OTAs when we trained. We trained at a high level from the days where we were working out, sweating hard, just putting in the dog days. It's paying off."