This may be a loaded Buffalo Bills defense. And as written here in our season preview, the dominant unit is on the clock.
This Mario Williams/Marcell Dareus/Kyle Williams/Jerry Hughes front won't be in their prime together forever. Behind them, Preston Brown has the looks of a middle linebacker who'll last. And the likes of Manny Lawson and Nigel Bradham are playmakers in their own right.
But what about the secondary? Is an elite front seven backed up by an elite group of defensive backs?
The Bills are going to find out in a hurry.
No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore sat down with us to explain how he does his job — he's planning to track No. 1's all season. And while Gilmore was the least of Rex Ryan's worries through training camp, he will certainly be shouldering more responsibility in this scheme.
Aaron Williams and Corey Graham bring a lot of game experience to safety. The veteran Graham, moving from corner to safety, was never threatened by Duke Williams in camp.
The real question is at the other cornerback spot where rookie Ronald Darby struggled the last time he was on the field. Ryan said he's been putting the second-rounder in tough positions on purpose — chances are, they'd give Darby more help when the games actually matter. Nonetheless, Darby was picked on by starters and fourth-stringers alike vs. Carolina and Pittsburgh with an impressive two-interception night against Cleveland in-between.
In the slot, the Bills gave Nickell Robey a two-year contract extension during the camp. The 5-foot-7 corner, who still plays for his late mom, will also be used as more of a blitzer under Ryan. The Bills are counting on him improving his tackling, too. He had a miss rate of 23.9 percent in 2014 (tied for worst in the NFL), per Football Outsiders.
So here's the Week 1 test. MVP candidate Andrew Luck — statistically the best quarterback against the blitz — will be throwing to these guys:
WR T.Y. Hilton: The 5-foot-9, 178-pound burner signed a six-year, $65.5 million extension in August, off his best season to date. As Luck's go-to guy, he caught 82 passes for 1,345 yards (16.4 avg.) and seven touchdowns. Hilton returned to practice from a concussion on Sept. 1, thus appears to be on track for Week 1. One of the NFL's best at finding/exploiting holes in a defense. Lack of size hasn't been a detriment three seasons in as Hilton has emerged into an explosive weapon — his 4.3 speed has transferred.
WR Andre Johnson: The 34-year-old signed with Indy this past off-season. Despite some often shoddy quarterback play in Houston, he has 13,597 career yards and 64 touchdowns. Is he on the decline? That's up for debate. As recent as 2013, Johnson was targeted 181 times in catching 109 passes for 1,407 yards. Last year, his line dipped to 936 and three scores. The Colts moved Johnson around in training camp, experimenting with him over smaller slot cornerbacks, something he didn't do much in Houston.
WR Phillip Dorsett: A surprise of a first-round pick in May. Like Hilton, Dorsett has 4.3 speed. With Miami (Fla.) last season, Dorsett turned Darby around on a post route for a 27-yard touchdown. Since OTA's, observers have raved about Dorsett in Indianapolis. This is the kind of rich-get-richer luxury pick that Bill Polian would often make as the Colts' G.M.
TE Coby Fleener/Dwayne Allen: Indianapolis uses both tight ends a lot. The two combined for 1,169 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Their size — Fleener is 6-6, 251, Allen is 6-3, 265 — can pose match-up problems. Buffalo's linebackers will need to cover in this season opener, too.
For the Bills, the plan probably starts with Gilmore. They'll be using a lot of man to man this season. Do they use Gilmore over Hilton or Johnson? Players have the day off today and will return Tuesday. We'll have more on Buffalo's plan then here on the blog
Earlier this summer, defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson said it'll be important for Gilmore to eliminate a receiver from the game.
"Any time you have a man-coverage scheme you need to have a guy that you know can take out the opposition's best or second-best receiver," Henderson said. "So it's very important that we rely on him to do some of those things."
Henderson added that Gilmore "would love" to take teams' No. 1 receiver. So that's where it gets tricky with the Colts, a team with several legitimate weapons.
"He's a press corner who's great at the line of scrimmage," Henderson said of Gilmore. "He has strong hands, good feet and plays the ball well down the field."
After Indianapolis, the Bills face (a highly motivated) Tom Brady and then Ryan Tannehill and his young receiving corps in Miami.
The Bills' DB's will be tested right away.