James Ihedigbo’s travel plans got turned upside down last week.
One minute, he was finishing up a workout and getting ready to head to the airport with his wife for a flight to Massachusetts, where he would spend Thanksgiving at his in-laws’ house.
The next, his agent was on the phone.
“He said, ‘hey, Buffalo wants to bring you in and work you out and possibly sign you,’ ” Ihedigbo said. “I was like, ‘hopefully this is it.’ This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for and working hard for.”
So Ihedigbo’s wife headed to Massachusetts on her own, while he came here. The Bills liked what they saw, and Ihedigbo signed one week ago.
Coach Rex Ryan and his staff wasted no time in getting Ihedigbo up to speed. He was in on 18 defensive snaps during Sunday’s 16-12 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, including the very first play of the game, and finished with one tackle.
“We put a couple new packages in for Cincinnati specifically and I thought James did a real good job in some of those things,” Ryan said.
To go from off the street to the starting lineup in five days is practically unheard of in the NFL, so it speaks volumes about the way Ihedigbo prepares, both mentally and physically.
“I’m a student of the game,” he said. “I really pride myself on that — knowing our defense, what everyone does, as well as our opponent. That’s really what it was.
“Before the ink was even dry” on his contract, “I was meeting with coaches, sitting down with” Ed Reed and Dennis Thurman and Rob Ryan, “going over what they need from me and what they’re asking of me as a player, and then getting to study the game plan. … Toward the end of the week, they noticed how much of the defense I already picked up and knew my assignment. They said hey, ‘we feel comfortable putting you in there.’ ”
It helps that Ihedigbo has some experience in Ryan’s defense, having spent the 2009-10 seasons with the coach on the New York Jets, and also playing with Baltimore from 2012-13, where some of the principals of the scheme were the same.
“The ability to communicate, to know your responsibility, that foundation, that ground work, was there,” Ihedigbo said. “Subconsciously it was, I guess, easy to tap into, to say, ‘ok, I remember this. This call, this is what this means.’ Different calls I didn’t know, I would say, ‘ok this is what we called it in Detroit, exact same thing, exact same coverage scheme. Instead of calling it James, they’ll call it John.’ ”
With another week to get comfortable, it’s entirely possible Ihedigbo’s role will get even bigger against Jacksonville in Week 12. That’s because fellow safety Robert Blanton suffered a foot injury in the fourth quarter against the Bengals that had him on crutches in the locker room after the game. Ryan said Monday it’s unlikely Blanton will be able to play against the Jaguars.
“Having James Ihedigbo in now for another week – I think he is really a sharp kid – he will get the base and sub defenses and things like that,” Ryan said. “He’ll have a better understanding of what we are trying to do, and then you still have Jonathan Meeks. So we’ll see how it goes.”
For his career, Ihedigbo has played in 114 games with 53 starts, making 276 tackles, nine sacks, eight interceptions, 23 passes defensed, eight forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
“I know despite what happened during the offseason and even going into the season – I know I’m a starter in this league,” Ihedigbo said. “I know that I can still play at a high level. I was training my tail off just for the opportunity.
“If it’s an expanded role this week, I’m ready for it. Whatever role that Rex and the rest of the coaching staff wants and needs out of me, I’ll be ready for it. … I want to help this team win. I want to help lead this team to the playoffs, and I want to contribute by making some big plays out there on defense.”
The Bills had actually worked Ihedigbo out earlier in the year, but the positional need wasn’t really there until Aaron Williams went down with a neck injury in Week Seven.
“It was all about my preparation and being ready for the opportunity,” he said. “I thank God it’s here in Buffalo with a phenomenal fan base and great coaching staff and great teammates. We can really make a run at this thing.”
At 5-5, the Bills may need to run the table to end a 16-year playoff drought.
“This is a point in the season when teams start to separate themselves,” Ihedigbo said. “When you have a second half like we did against Cincinnati, which is a playoff football team, that kind of makes a statement – ‘hey, this is the kind of team that we are and this is the kind of defense that we can play.’ We’ve got to play that style for four quarters and start to make some noise.”
Ihedigbo played in college at UMass, and originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Jets in 2007. He spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve because of a hand injury. In addition to his time in New York, he’s also played for New England (2011) and Detroit (2014-15).
“It was unfamiliar territory,” he said of not being on a team at the start of training camp. “Every year I’ve been in the league, I’ve been on a roster and if not in a starting role, a guaranteed roster spot role. But at the same time I wasn’t going to be shaken or deterred. I stayed the course and trusted the process.”
That included a diligent workout routine that included boxing three or four times per week. Ihedigbo found that kept him as close to his playing weight – he’s listed at 214 pounds – as possible.
“I was expecting to be a little bit more fatigued playing Sunday,” he said. “I kind of shocked myself that I was in better shape than I thought I was. It’s a testament to my preparation, but I look at it as, ‘that’s what you did to get here. What are you going to do to stay here and make my presence felt on this defense and with this team?’ ”