ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --For so many years, quarterbacks steered clear Champ Bailey's side of the field, avoiding it as though that entire patch of grass was radioactive.
More and more, they do the same against Chris Harris Jr.
In the Broncos' 22-7 defeat at St. Louis, Rams quarterback Shaun Hill avoided Harris for most of the game. Hill threw just three of his 28 passes in Harris' direction. All fell incomplete, thanks to step-for-step coverage against a variety of targets, since he manned both the right cornerback spot in the base package and the slot cornerback position in the nickel, a role he recently reassumed.
Hill was 20-of-25 throwing at anybody else -- and 0-for-3 against Harris.
Nobody appreciates this more than Bailey, the Broncos' longtime lockdown cornerback. After the New Orleans Saints released him, he spent his Sundays watching NFL games. With no need to study opposing offensive schemes, he could focus on cornerbacks.
And Bailey believes his protege is the league's pacesetter.
"He's playing better than anybody in this league right now," Bailey said.
Independent evaluations back that up. Harris is the top-rated overall cornerback according to ProFootballFocus.com's metrics, and also the best in pass coverage, yardage per reception allowed (7.4) and opposing quarterback rating on passes thrown in his direction (41.7). Given that the collective rating for opposing passers throwing in other directions is 90.3, Hill cannot be blamed for avoiding Harris' territory.
But for Bailey, it's all about the eye test.
"I don't keep up with all that. I just go by what I see. I just look at tape," Bailey said.
Bailey knew something was different about Harris as far back as the 2011 training camp, when he was listed on the fifth string as an undrafted rookie. Without the benefit of OTAs because of that year's lockout, Harris had minimal time to make an impression, but he did, and Bailey took immediate notice.
"Just the hunger -- that's really what separates guys, is the attitude," Bailey said. "A lot of guys don't have the attitude. They have the talent, this and that, the intangibles. He had the attitude, and he had the right attitude."
And that helps Harris in a game like Sunday's in the Edward Jones Dome, where the Broncos met frustration at every turn, and he kept pounding away. The quality of his coverage never wavered.
Harris gets the job done in a different manner than Bailey. But they share a diligence to their craft, a willingness to make plays against the run, the ability to make their teammates better and the accountability to stand up and answer questions, win or lose. It is appropriate that Harris has the locker-room stall that Bailey made his own for so long.
The fourth-year veteran's appreciation for his mentor is deep, and it was no surprise that he was among the current and former Broncos in the front row for Bailey's retirement press conference. Their connection will always be deep, and Bailey takes pride in Harris' accomplishments.
"I do, but it's not because of me, but I know I helped him with some things. But he's his own man," Bailey said. "He wants to be great -- and he is showing it."
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