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Injuries back the Bills into a corner Lack of production by reserves hurts

The Buffalo Bills have been second-guessed a lot about their decision to play less-than-healthy cornerback Terrence McGee last Sunday in Miami.

The Bills insist he was ready to play, but there was another reason McGee was on the field -- the Bills didn't have a better option.

That tells you everything you need to know about Buffalo's plight at cornerback.

The Bills have been forced to reshuffle their secondary in recent weeks because of cornerbacks who are either hurt or not contributing.

"It's not ideal," head coach Dick Jauron said. "You'd like to have that continuity all of the time, but in our business, you don't. You have to deal with injuries and we're dealing with them and they're dealing with them and trying to play through them and going through some different groupings back there, but you'd love to have them all up and healthy. You just very rarely get that."

The cornerback position has not been intact since McGee went down with a sprained medial collateral knee ligament on the first series of the Bills' fourth game at St. Louis. The Bills also have been without nickel cornerback Ashton Youboty due to an undisclosed foot injury he's been dealing with since Week Five at Arizona.

With McGee and Youboty out, the Bills have used strong safety Donte Whitner at nickel corner and free safety. Backup strong safety Bryan Scott has started the last two games, while reserve free safety George Wilson has seen action in nickel situations.

The shake-up worked well against San Diego, but Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington lit up the Bills' secondary, completing 73 percent of his passes for 314 yards. The focus of Miami's passing attack was a hobbled McGee, who was the primary victim of a career day by Miami second-year receiver Ted Ginn Jr. Of Ginn's 175 receiving yards, 171 came with McGee in coverage.

The Bills' struggles defending the pass last Sunday is part of a disturbing trend.

In the first four games, the Bills gave up an average of 187.3 yards (168.5 net), a 49.6 completion percentage, one touchdown and three interceptions. But over the past three contests, their short-handed secondary has yielded 257.3 yards (249 net). Opponents are completing a whopping 76.2 percent of their passes with five touchdowns and one interception in that three-game span.
The Bills also allowed three pass plays over 40 yards against the Dolphins.

"We gave up some big plays," Whitner said. "Those three or four long passes that we gave up were a total of like 150-something yards, so we take that off of the board, we'll sit pretty well. But we didn't, and that's something that we have to correct."

It would help if the Bills were back to full strength at cornerback. Starter Jabari Greer and rookies Leodis McKelvin and Reggie Corner have been the Bills' only healthy corners.

But McGee and Youboty are practicing this week and are expected to be closer to full strength Sunday against the New York Jets.

"It is better," McGee said of his right knee. "I still have to wrap it up to practice, but it feels pretty good. Right now I'm just working trying to get ready for Sunday."

And he can't wait for Sunday to get here. Cornerbacks are taught to have a short memory, but McGee hasn't put the debacle in Miami behind him yet. He is looking for some redemption against the Jets.

"Oh yeah, most definitely," McGee said. "You don't want to leave that bad taste in your mouth. You want to go out there and return to the form I'm used to. I feel like before the injury I was playing pretty good football. I want to keep playing good football so that my teammates can count on me."

McGee's difficulties last week does raise the question of why McKelvin isn't playing more. The Bills' first-round draft pick and the 11th overall selection got significant time against St. Louis and Arizona, but he has seen very limited action on defense that last two games.

It's not unusual for a rookie cornerback to have a minimal impact, especially just seven games into his NFL career. Moreover, the Bills didn't need McKelvin to contribute early because of the experienced depth ahead of him.

But things have changed with all the injuries, and McKelvin's noticeable lack of production would suggest the Bills trust McGee at less than 100 percent more than a healthy McKelvin at this point.

"He's really getting better," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "Sometimes we have very complex game plans, and when you don't get all the reps it's kind of tough to be on top of your game. We had a more complex game plan last week and he didn't get a lot of reps in practice, so he didn't play as much. He's coming along. He's going to be fine."

But can the Bills say the same thing for their entire secondary? They'll certainly need all hands on deck Sunday with Brett Favre and the New York Jets coming to town.

"We know what we're capable of doing," McGee said. "We just have to go out and do it."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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