It was supposed to be a sky-is-falling scenario for the Buffalo Bills’ secondary.
Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore suffered a broken wrist in the preseason and wasn’t going to be ready in September. Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd reported to the team late after signing his franchise tag, then it was revealed he wasn’t ready to play because of plantar fasciitis in both feet.
To make matters worse, the season started with Pro Bowl quarterbacks Tom Brady and Cam Newton coming to town.
But the Bills’ remaining defensive backs never got the memo that they were supposed to struggle. Instead, they’ve been mostly solid in helping the Bills get off to a 1-1 start.
“We’ve got a group that’ll fight and will go out there and compete every single play,” said veteran safety Jim Leonhard, who joined the team just six days before the season opener against New England. “That’s good for your team. That’s going to allow you to have success.”
The Bills rank 13th in the league through the first two weeks of the season in passing yards allowed, at an average of 228 per game. While Brady and Newton have combined to complete 90 passes in two weeks, the average gain on those passing plays is 5.7 yards, the fifth-best total in the league.
“For the most part we’ve eliminated big plays. We’ve been put in some tough situations and responded, forced teams to kick some field goals on short fields,” Leonhard said. “Any time you can do things like that in critical situations, you know, you’re going to have a chance to be in games, and you saw that the first two weeks. It’s been down to the last couple seconds.”
Buffalo has allowed only five plays of 20 yards or more in the first two weeks, tied for eighth best in the NFL in that category, and only one play has gone for 40 or more yards.
“I think any time you get a young group of guys like this, they want to make a name for themselves and go out there and perform. You’ve seen that the first two weeks,” Leonhard said. “Guys want to go out there and prove they belong in this league and can win games. It’s a hungry group.”
The secondary, it seems, as outperformed everyone’s expectations - except for its own.
“We’re really confident in the guys we have now,” said strong safety Aaron Williams, who in the first two weeks has played 169 of the team’s 170 defensive snaps. “We’re real confident in our abilities. Any time somebody goes down, I don’t have any second thoughts of, ‘is the guy coming in going to take care of his responsibilities, take care of his job?’ I know for a fact they’re going to go out there and give their all.”
Williams has started the first two games of his career this season at strong safety after spending his first two years at cornerback. Starting free safety Da’Norris Searcy had only three starts coming into the year, while right cornerback Justin Rogers had two and nickel cornerback Nickell Robey is a rookie undrafted free agent.
“That goes on and those situations arise sometimes due to injury and you just have to overcome that type of adversity,” said coach Doug Marrone after the opener against New England. “I thought that those players have done a good job. When you bring in the newer players or players that haven’t been with you before, it’s usually like double duty. You have to get them ready as far as knowing the system, because depending on how you’re playing and who you’re playing you have to make sure you don’t limit things.”
One of the keys for the secondary has been communication.
“We’re helping each other out,” Rogers said. “Everyone was looking at our injury situation and was down about it. We’re banged up, but the guys that are out there, we’re here to compete.”
One of the areas the secondary can improve is on third down. In Week One, all 11 of New England’s third-down conversions came through the air. In Week Two, five of Carolina’s seven third-down conversions were via pass plays. Williams was also called for an unnecessary roughness penalty on a third down that gave Carolina a free first down.
Newton said before last week’s game he “absolutely” planned to target Buffalo’s secondary.
“It’s motivation,” Rogers said. “I mean, we know that’s going to happen. You see opposing teams and you know that they’re going to challenge the secondary, especially with Stephon being out.
“We overcame adversity. I think we’re only going to get better from here. The past two weeks, we’re really proud of how we’re playing, but we’ve got a long way to go. We’re going to keep fighting.”