It was supposed to be a disaster for the Buffalo Bills’ defensive backfield.
On the first play from scrimmage Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, safety Corey Graham took a knee to the head and was knocked out for the game.
Later, rookie cornerback Ronald Darby – after acquitting himself quite well in his first career start – started cramping up. To the locker room he went, replaced by Mario Butler.
All of this happening against Andrew Luck spelled trouble, right?
As it turned out, the Bills have more depth than might have been thought before the season started.
“That’s the thing about this league – it’s all about depth,” Butler said. “Injuries can happen each and every day, from practice to games. It’s all about having depth. I think that’s one thing we have in the defensive backfield.”
Butler was targeted five times and allowed just one catch for 16 yards, according to the analytics website Pro Football Focus. He had the first two pass defenses of his career and held quarterback Luck to a 40.4 quarterback rating when throwing in his direction.
“It felt really good … to go out there and just play freely and have fun,” said Butler, who before Sunday had played in only one NFL game, with Dallas in 2012. “Being around a great group of guys and a great group of coaches that have been helping this entire defense stay aggressive and stay attacking. I have a grateful attitude to this organization for just giving me a chance to showcase what I can do.”
While Butler’s play Sunday was impressive, it shouldn’t have been surprising. Coach Rex Ryan has raved about him since spring practices started.
“I’ve been impressed with that young man for a long time,” Ryan said. “All he does is make plays. That’s what he did. Steps right in, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
Butler spent the 2014 season on injured reserve because of an ankle injury. The 6-foot-1, 187-pounder has so far made the most of his opportunity with a new coaching staff.
“This league is so crazy sometimes,” said Butler, who in addition to the Cowboys has also spent time on the Denver Broncos’ practice squad. “It’s all about timing. This opportunity, to me, is really special because I feel like a part of the team. I have a role. All the hard work has paid off, now it’s just about me continuing to do what I do. Continuing to go out there, make plays, and make it hard on the coaches. Make them say, ‘hey, we’ve got to get that guy in the package.’ ”
While it’s only one game into a long season, the depth that showed itself Sunday in the defensive backfield is a big positive for the Bills. There is a culture of accountability developing in the secondary.
“When you’re the next guy up you have to go in and play to the starter’s ability,” Ryan said. “Mentally, sometimes it is a challenge. … Sometimes it’s like ‘I’m not going to play.’ If you do that, when you get out there you let the entire team down. But we have guys that stepped up and they did prepare like they are supposed to and it’s a credit to them, a credit to our coaches. We had guys ready to play.”
Butler’s second pass defensed came in the fourth quarter on a throw intended for Colts receiver Andre Johnson. The tipped ball fell into the hands of safety Aaron Williams for an interception that sealed the season-opening victory.
“I would not have a pick without Butler’s great defense,” Williams said. “The guys behind us, they are definitely ready. While we’re playing, they’re anxious to get in the game. When that happens, I’m fired up, too.”
Shortly after the game, Butler was asked if that moment – making a key play against a future Hall of Famer – had even begun to sink in.
“For me, it’s no name, no face,” he said of his approach. “That’s how I try to come into every game, no matter who I’m going up against. I’m trying to control what I can. If I do that, the plays will come.”
Darby should have no problem playing in Week Two, and the Bills are hopeful Graham’s status should be more clear by the end of the week as he progresses through the NFL’s concussion protocol.
With Tom Brady and the big, bad Patriots coming to town Sunday, the Bills will need all the reinforcements they can get.
An impressive showing against the Colts is a reason to feel confident players like Butler will be ready if injuries strike again.
“We’re not worried about if a guy goes down,” Williams said. “We all keep each other accountable, and that’s one of our biggest goals this year. … If somebody’s not preparing right and you see it during the week, you get on him, tell him, ‘hey, let’s go, we’re not going to wait on you.’ ”