Let the record show that no one in the Buffalo Bills’ secondary is shaking in his cleats or gnawing on his fingernails or wishing the NFL schedule-makers had come up with a different opponent for the very first game of the year.
Andrew Luck’s coming to town? With that big arm? With those big-play receivers? With all of his big career passing numbers?
“Just another NFL quarterback to me,” safety Aaron Williams said Wednesday, as the Bills began preparing in earnest for Sunday’s season-opener against Luck and the Indianapolis Colts at Ralph Wilson Stadium. “He’s really good at what he does. He manages the game really well, but, I mean, you know, we’ve faced quarterbacks like this before.
“To have it come out of the box is a good test, and that’s all it is – another quarterback that’s a good test for us.”
Besides their two annual encounters with Tom Brady, the Bills took on three other elite passers in Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning just last season. They split with Brady’s Patriots, although he only played half of Buffalo’s season-ending victory at New England. Rivers did carve them up in a loss against San Diego, but they easily got the better of Rodgers in a stunning upset of Green Bay. And even in losing at Denver, they more than held their own against Peyton Manning.
Of course, this isn’t the same defensive backfield the Bills had for most of last season.
Leodis McKelvin is out with an ankle injury and rookie Ronald Darby, who sandwiched a two-interception game at Cleveland with a pair of extremely poor preseason showings, is starting in his place. Safety Da’Norris Searcy left for Tennessee in free agency, and has been replaced by former cornerback Corey Graham, a ninth-year veteran and the most senior member of the group. In addition, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus will be serving his one-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
Oh, and by the way, the Bills are playing a different scheme than they did on the way to ranking fourth in total yards allowed and third against the pass last season. They’re taking a far more aggressive, blitz-oriented approach that requires every defensive back to occasionally, if not frequently, be in man-to-man coverage. In other words, Darby and fellow cornerback Stephon Gilmore can count on their share of alone time with game-breaking receivers T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson.
And that’s just fine with Bills defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson.
“I feel good enough to play Cover One,” with everyone except a deep safety in single coverage, Henderson said. “We can cover them. They’ve only got one ball.”
True. But it will be in the hands of Luck, who has thrown for 12,957 yards since his rookie year in 2012. That’s the highest total through the first three seasons of a quarterback’s career in NFL history. Luck also ranks second in touchdown passes in that span with 86.
Never one to lack for confident talk, coach Rex Ryan said the Bills’ defense would challenge Luck mentally and physically, predicting he would “have to pick himself up occasionally” and could plan on seeing “multiple things playing a real defense.”
Nevertheless, when Luck looks to one side of the field, he’s going to see a rookie cornerback. He’s probably going to smile, or at least be tempted to do so, regardless of which receiver Darby is covering. And he’s definitely going to throw in that direction. A lot.
That’s Quarterbacking 101. You pick on the rookie until he proves that you shouldn’t.
Asked during Wednesday’s conference call with media covering the Bills if the Colts had anything special planned to exploit Darby’s inexperience, Luck laughed. “No, we approach every game really the same and see how we can get an advantage somewhere,” he said.
The Bills insist they aren’t fretting about Darby’s ability to hold up against whatever the Colts send his way. They insist that those ugly plays he gave up against Kelvin Benjamin in the preseason-opener against Carolina and those pass-interference penalties he drew against the Pittsburgh Steelers and those not-so-sterling moments on the practice field aren’t cause to assume he’ll be repeatedly toasted on Sunday.
Henderson lists mental strength as one of Darby’s best qualities. He doesn’t see him collapsing under the weight of those August setbacks.
“It doesn’t deter one iota from who he is,” Henderson said. “He’s going to wash it off. You beat him one time and he’s going to come right back. It does not get to him. Those are training-camp issues and those are the growing pains he’s going to have as a rookie.
“Like I told him, ‘When I tell you specific things, how to play people, that’s how you’ve got to play them. If I tell you that you can’t get beat when’ the Steelers’ Martavis Bryant ‘goes vertical all the time, you can’t get beat deep. When I tell you when you get down the field against a bigger guy, you can’t be jostling and fighting, because you’re going to lose that with a bigger guy. Go get the ball!’ Those are things that he can learn.
“But he’s still competing. He gets penalties because he’s competing. You don’t see him just grab a guy for beating him. I’m happy with that part of it.”
The Bills plan to give Darby, their second-round draft pick from Florida State, help with coverage, but there are limits to how much they can provide because of the risk of compromising themselves elsewhere. The widely held notion that the team would be better off replacing Darby with Graham and Graham with Duke Williams has merit, and wouldn’t be a shocking development if disaster were to strike.
For the most part, however, the coaches intend to take a deep breath and trust/hope that the rookie and his fellow defensive backs do their jobs well enough to send Luck home with the same sort of scowl Rodgers wore when he departed Orchard Park.
“We’ve got to let Darby play, because if you don’t, he won’t get any better,” Henderson said. “And you’ve got to let Corey play, because Corey’s playing a new position, too. You’ve got to let them both just play and work themselves through it.”
Darby is as unflinching as the rest of the Bills’ secondary when it comes to pondering what’s in store for him Sunday.
“Yeah, I expect it,” he said of being targeted by Luck. “As a corner, I always expect the ball’s going to get thrown my way. But that’s just more chances for me to make plays, and you know, help get noticed.”
The Bills will do their share of scheming in an effort to prevent Luck from finding any sort of comfort zone. They’re expected to repeatedly change coverages – showing man, zone, and combinations of the two at various times – or at least give the appearance of doing so before the snap.
“We have to make sure he doesn’t see the same look twice in a row,” Henderson said. “He’s a good enough passer and he’s a big, strong guy that can fit it into tight windows. And in his mind, he believes he can throw any throw. Then, we’ve got to win the matchups, whoever we match up against. And we’ve got to be good on third down.”
“You have to try to confuse him,” Williams said of Luck. “He’s very smart, so not showing what we do” before the snap “will help us out. Communication definitely will help us out. And just disguising” coverages. “If we do those three things, we’ll definitely get an advantage of winning this game.”
Williams and Graham will be largely responsible for maintaining order on the back end of the defense by communicating with each other as well as with Gilmore and Darby. Henderson knows the Bills can lean on Graham to keep “everybody calm in the secondary,” while also making plays.
Gilmore goes about his business quietly, wanting his play to reaffirm his belief and Ryan’s proclamations that he’s a top-flight NFL cornerback. The Bills would be thrilled if Gilmore remains under the radar by not having any Darby-like preseason blunders.
Darby is pretty quiet as well. He acknowledges the preseason served as a reminder of the “difficult transition” from college to the NFL, but saw each game as “practice,” as a learning opportunity.
Sunday against the Colts is the real thing. Yet, he’s either too young or perhaps too cool to view it as something he can’t handle.
“They’re a good team,” Darby said. “But every team in the NFL is good. So just prepare and compete.”