ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In the Broncos’ secondary, if you’re not 30-something, you’re grappling for playing time … at least, that’s how it’s worked this year.
When healthy, safety Brian Dawkins and cornerbacks Andre’ Goodman and Champ Bailey have been the constants. Their average experience is 13 seasons; their average age is 34.7 years. It’s everyone around them who has been in a state of flux, in some cases because of injury, others because of performance.
“Nothing’s ever set in stone in the National Football League; it’s always an evaluation process,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “We’re all being evaluated and we’ll make changes that we feel like give us the best chance to win on a week-by-week basis.”
That meant that Rahim Moore started the first five games at free safety, but Quinton Carter has started the last two. It also placed Week 1 street-free-agent pickup Jonathan Wilhite into the starting lineup twice as a fifth defensive back and undrafted rookie free agent Christopher Harris into the starting nickelback role last week. With Cassius Vaughn starting the three games that Bailey missed with a hamstring injury, that gives the Broncos eight defensive backs who’ve started at least once this year — three of whom are rookies.
It didn’t seem like it would be that way in August, when Dawkins and Moore were set to man the safety slots, with the 16-year veteran as much advisor as run stopper. But that’s the way this season has turned — and with Carter recovering from a concussion he suffered Sunday, it appears set to turn back to Moore once again.
“We gave Quinton Carter an opportunity, and when Quinton went down, Rahim got another opportunity. We feel very good about both of them,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “They’re both rookies that improve with every opportunity they get, particularly in games.”
Allen noted last Thursday that Carter’s efforts in practice allowed him to get noticed in the first place.
“He’d been doing a good job in practice,” Allen said, “and we felt like it was the best thing to get him out on the field and get some work.
Moore worked as the sixth defensive back in the dime package at Miami and against Detroit until Carter’s concussion, which thrust him back onto the first team. His performance could determine whether he stays there; the depth chart is written in pencil as Fox, Allen and the position coaches continue to evaluate their young defensive backs.
“Nothing’s going to be easy; you’re going to go through some trials and tribulations, but it shows ho tough you are, how much you really love the game, and also just how much you want to help them win,” Moore said.
To his credit, Moore handled his demotion with diligence and without complaint.
“Whether you’re on the field or the sideline, whatever the case, you still can help, and I try to get better every day and keep a positive attitude around here, because that’s what we need,” he said.
” I never look at it as a bad thing; this is what the situation is. It’s how you overcome it, because I’ve had previous times when I was younger where people told me I would never be anything in life. And look where I am now. I’ll give it all I’ve got in situations like this.”
The individual season trajectory has been more directly upward for Harris, who drew notice for his speed and aggression in training camp and parlayed that into a role on special teams before moving to nickelback late in the Week 7 win at Miami. He did so well that day — breaking up two passes in limited action — that he earned the start in a nickel formation against Detroit seven days later.
His first starting assignment was difficult. Harris worked most of his snaps against the slot receiver, and the Lions responded by motioning Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson inside on some plays. That forced a one-on-one match between the 236-pound veteran of freakish size and agility and the 190-pound rookie still learning his way.
“We kind of expected him to do that, but mainly when we were watching tape, (Johnson) was running all (vertical routes) every time he was in the two-hole,” Harris said. “That was their game plan, to run those little follows and he’s so huge, you saw how big he was, he just bodied me, man.”
So did Lions tight end Tony Scheffler, whose juggling 28-yard catch that made every NFL highlight package from Los Angeles to London came at Harris’s expense.
“That was definitely the biggest team I’ve ever played against. They definitely know how to use their size well,” Harris said.
“I feel like I went out there and competed. I played every snap as hard as I could. I went out there and tried to make plays and just tried to be around the ball.”
Harris didn’t break up any passes, but then again, only two Detroit passes were defensed — one by Bailey and another by Dawkins. And the worst play of Sunday’s work from the secondary wasn’t on Harris, but grizzled veterans Dawkins and Goodman, whose miscommunication led to Titus Young’s first-series touchdown reception.
“All in all, I thought (Harris) did okay,” Fox said.
Whether “okay” places him in the nickelback role again Sunday is to be determined, since the Broncos’ secondary that is much like the team as a whole — defined by its potential and its future performance as much as its efforts in the present.