Nickell Robey introduced everyone to the “Florida Grind” on Sunday.
That’s what the Buffalo Bills’ rookie cornerback calls his celebratory flip into the end zone, which he showed off in the first quarter of a 23-21 victory over the Miami Dolphins, following his first career interception.
“In high school in Florida, that’s what we always do. We always hit a flip in the end zone for our first touchdown, so I did that,” Robey said Monday, with a wide smile crossing his face. “I was home. My family was there. I was happy. I know I performed well, so it was a great day.”
Robey’s highlight-reel interception might have left Bills fans wanting to try a “Florida Grind” of their own, but for coach Doug Marrone, it was an expectation.
“Him making that interception was more of an it’s about time, because he’s been doing that and has been very close,” Marrone said. “I actually told him, ‘Gosh, you should’ve had another one later in the game.’ When you start talking about that, it’s great because you have someone who has very good instincts, someone who can make those plays. You’re looking for him to do that more often.”
Robey spent part of Saturday night in the team hotel constantly rehearsing the play — in which he stepped in front of Dolphins receiver Brandon Gibson on a pivot route and held onto the interception, taking it 19 yards to the end zone.
“I actually told myself I was going to believe what I saw and go get it. I played it in my head in the hotel room,” Robey said. “Coach always tells us, ‘Visualize yourself making plays.’ I do that on my own. … Doing that and actually going out there and executing it, everything went great.”
Part of Robey’s learning process as a rookie has been trusting his instincts.
“You tell yourself, ‘I see it on film, so I really gotta go get it and just let everything go.’ It ain’t like practice when you go over it three or four times,” he said Monday. “It’s one play and when that opportunity presents itself, you’ve just got to seize the moment. I feel like yesterday I did that.”
Robey registered three pass breakups and made two tackles against the Dolphins in 38 defensive snaps (58 percent). For the season, he’s defended six passes and made 12 tackles working as the team’s nickel cornerback.
Robey grew up in Frostproof, Fla., before attending Southern California. He was not drafted — largely because he measured just 5-foot-7 at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“Not the biggest guy in the world, but he’s got the biggest heart,” Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin said. “He’s smart. He’s a student of the game. He’s doing everything he needs to do as a rookie, especially an undrafted rookie. No matter how big he is or anything like that, he’s just going to play ball with all his heart.”
Robey first attracted the attention of Marrone in college, when his Syracuse team played the Trojans. The Bills signed him as a free agent the day after the conclusion of the NFL Draft in April.
“We knew a little bit more about him … having faced him in college,” Marrone said.
Robey started to make an impression early in spring practices.
“Since he came into rookie camp he’s been around the ball. He’s very competitive,” McKelvin said. “He’s going to compete with you no matter if you’re 6-foot-0, he’s 5-9. You know he’s going to go out there and give you his all. He plays really big. That’s a good thing for him. I hope he keeps it up.”
McKelvin was being generous in listing Robey at 5-9.
“You just know you’ve got to be a lot more fundamentally sound using your feet,” Robey said of playing against the biggest receivers. “In my case, I’ve just got to use my speed and my quickness to overcome that part.”
According to the website Pro Football Focus, which grades every play of every NFL game, Robey has allowed just 0.54 yards per coverage snap in the slot, currently third best in the NFL.
“We’ve just got to show up every day, come with our hard hat, and work hard,” Robey said. “We’re always going to find a way to get around the ball and make plays.”
Robey’s focus was on display Monday. While he was being interviewed by a scrum of reporters, safety Da’Norris Searcy stood on a stool behind them, trying to get Robey to crack a smile. It wasn’t until fellow defensive back Aaron Williams came over and asked a question himself that Robey finally cracked.
Robey’s answer to Williams’ question – about how it feels to be part of a secondary that leads the NFL in interceptions – was shaky.
“You took me by surprise,” Robey yelled to Williams.
That’s something the diminutive cornerback has done – in a good way – for Bills fans this year.