Buffalo Bills coach Gregg Williams has always said he's not afraid to play young players. He continued to be true to his words with a lineup change before Thursday night's game against Jacksonville.
Williams moved rookie cornerback Nate Clements into a starting role in place of veteran Ken Irvin.
The move meant the Bills had four rookies -- Clements, middle linebacker Brandon Spoon, running back Travis Henry and offensive right guard Jonas Jennings -- in their starting lineup.
Bryce Fisher, technically a first-year player, started at left defensive end Thursday in place of Phil Hansen. Hansen is recovering from a dislocated elbow.
Making Clements a starter turned out to be a terrific move as he had an outstanding night. Lined up most of the game against Jacksonville star wide receiver Jimmy Smith, Clements held the Jaguars' All-Pro in check. Smith caught six passes but gained only 49 yards.
"Jimmy Smith is one of the best receivers in the league," Clements said. "But our coaches did a great job preparing us for this game. They looked at a lot of film, studied (the Jaguars') tendencies and put us in position to stop some routes."
Clements' start was a bit of a surprise because Irvin took most of the defensive snaps with the first team. But Clements knew at the beginning of the week he would be starting.
That didn't change his approach to the game, though.
"I was still hungry and played with desire," Clements said. "I tried to practice like a guy who didn't have a starting position but was trying to win a spot."
Clements becoming a starter has been expected since the Bills made him their No. 1 draft pick out of Ohio State. Irvin has struggled at times in coverage and has been beaten on big pass plays.
Irvin is a battler but lacks the overall physical ability of Clements, who has the preferred combination of size (5-foot-11 and 204 pounds), speed and man-coverage skills. Those assets were evident when he made an interception and returned it for a touchdown at Indianapolis earlier this season.
Irvin handled his demotion with class.
"It was hard for me, but I have to be a professional," said Irvin, who recorded his first interception of the season to stop a potential Jaguars scoring drive late in the first half. "You don't cause distractions to your team. What I was called on to do is play on third downs tonight, so that's what I had to do. It was a decision I had no control over, but I support it. I'm going to be right there doing the best I can in the situation I'm called upon. Good things will work out for you that way. Not starting is tough, but I can handle it."
Clements credited Irvin for his willingness to take the rookie under his wing this week.
"We talked earlier in the week, and Kenny said he would be behind me and help me in whatever I need," Clements said. "I'm still a rookie, and he's a veteran who knows all the ins and outs. He was there to help me any way he could, and it showed on the field tonight."
As if the Bills needed another injury, Jennings left the field after hurting his foot in the first half.
Jennings lasted only one offensive series before being taken to the locker room. The severity of the injury was not known. It was Jennings' second game back after suffering a hip injury.
Rookie Marques Sullivan and second-year pro Jon Carman played in Jennings' place.
Center Bill Conaty gave the team a scare when he left the field after separating his right shoulder. However, the team's medical staff managed to pop the shoulder back in place and Conaty was back on the field before halftime.
"I had to play," Conaty said. "It hurt like heck, but this was a big game for us. I wasn't going to miss it."
"I thought Billy Conaty did a great job of battling through a tough injury and answered the bell," Williams said. "That's what this game's about."
One of the biggest plays of the game was turned in by special teams player Phillip Crosby.
On the kickoff after the Bills took the final lead on Jake Arians' 46-yard field goal, Crosby ran down Jacksonville kickoff return specialist Damon Gibson and tackled him inside the 20-yard line. That put the Jaguars in an almost impossible task of driving the length of the field in the final minute.
"I looked at the clock and told our guys, 'Look, we've got a minute and three seconds. If we straight out run like bats, they won't get us,' " Crosby said. "We had been studying that kind of return all week and, sure enough, they tried to set something up to the right. When they do that, it leaves me open. I just flew out of the gate, and I just wanted to make the tackle. I wasn't about to let him go."
Jacksonville was the only NFL city in which the Bills had never played a regular-season game. The Bills hosted the other three meetings. The Jaguars won two of those, including a 30-27 victory in the 1996 wild-card playoffs.
The Bills visited Jacksonville twice in the preseason, playing Atlanta on Sept. 1, 1989, and Philadelphia on Aug. 4, 1973. Both games were at the Gator Bowl
The Bills are 10-3 after bye weeks, second only to Minnesota (10-2). The margin of victory in Buffalo's 10 wins has never been higher than nine points.
The Bills have a 30-25 record in night games (2-1 on Thursdays). They had won seven of their last eight in prime time.