- Jeff Legwold, ESPN Staff Writer
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In a season when Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has seen far more of head trainer Steve Antonopulos than Bailey has seen of the usual parade of top-shelf receivers in front of him, Sunday just might be the kind of day Bailey has hoped for.
Since suffering a left foot injury in a preseason loss in Seattle, Bailey has played in just three games this season. He played one full outing against the Jacksonville Jaguars, left the loss in Indianapolis after aggravating the injury, then removed himself from the lineup after 30 plays in the Dec. 1 win in Kansas City.
And after the failed outing in Arrowhead Bailey said something few around him in the league have ever heard him say. That a player who has oozed on-field swagger from his pores on the way to 12 Pro Bowl selections, didn’t have “confidence" either in how he played or in his left foot. He’s missed two games since, and after some time has passed, a lot more work and a lot more treatment, Bailey says he’s on track to play Sunday in Houston.
“I do feel like I do still have my speed and my quickness -- I have to in order to be able to play out there," Bailey said Thursday. “I feel good about what I can do. I think now it’s just being smart about how I go about doing it, and making sure I don’t have any setbacks and I don’t wear myself down or anything like that. The good thing is I’m fresh, I’m ready to go. I’ve had some time off and I’m ready to go."
“(It’s) hard for coaches to tell the difference between a guy being healthy and ready," said Broncos head coach John Fox. “He’s had a good week thus far, we’ll see how it works out this week ... (but) it was pretty evident in the game, you know, he wasn’t quite ready ... You learn, he learns."
Players who return from injuries often speak of physically being cleared by the doctors to return, but that there is often a lag time between that medical clearance and believing whatever was repaired, whatever has healed will hold up on the field. Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, on the brink of his first 1,000-yard rushing season, has come back from both an ACL surgery late in the 2011 season, and another knee procedure this past offseason. He has often spoke of the “first big cut you make on the knee" or the first “big hit you take" to start believing.
This is just the second time Bailey has missed at least seven games in a season -- he missed seven with a groin injury in 2008 -- but the first time he didn’t just jump back in the lineup and quickly find his rhythm. The first time he's had to go back and try again.
“Regardless of how we’re playing it’s hard to watch," Bailey said. “But I do what I can to help these guys get prepared every week, that’s what I’ve been doing. I still do the same thing this week, except I’ll be out there. I’m looking forward to getting out there and helping them while I’m on the field."
It figures to be a measured return with Bailey expected to work into the lineup the most when the Broncos are in their nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) packages. It’s how the Broncos had played Bailey against the Chiefs before he left the game.
That’s still plenty of work, as the Broncos were in the nickel or dime for 39 defensive snaps against the Chargers this past week to go with three snaps of a seven-defensive back look.
“Any time you’re dealing with an injury, there’s a physical component where you have to heal, and then mentally you have to get the work in, develop the skill again, or sharpen up the skill again," said Broncos defensive coorinator Jack Del Rio. “And that’s really where we are ... We need him to help us, we think he can."
Bailey was asked Thursday if the injury had him thinking about retirement, and he said with a laugh; “Oh no. I’m thinking about winning on Sunday.”
Asked if the struggle to get back had him thinking about his long-term future, Bailey simply said he’s thinking about the here and now. About the Texans.
“Not really, not more than normal," Bailey said. “I think we all have to think long-term, especially financially. Right now I’m just concentrating on getting my foot right and getting back on the field. That’s really where my head has been."