The Buffalo Bills defensive backs have taken a beating this season. Safeties Aaron Williams, Colt Anderson and Robert Blanton are all on injured reserve. James Ihedigbo started the last two weeks after being signed off the street.
Cornerback Corey White practiced at safety leading up to Sunday’s game against the Jaguars, but when Ronald Darby suffered a concussion in the first quarter, he moved right on back.
Still, the Bills’ patchwork defensive backfield held up Sunday, holding Blake Bortles to just 126 yards passing in the Bills 28-21 win at New Era Field that kept their playoff hopes alive at 6-5. It was the third-lowest output of Bortles’ career and his fewest yards since his rookie season. He only completed seven passes to wide receivers.
“I thought we actually played pretty decent on the back end, in particular,” Rex Ryan said.
“I loved the way Darby was playing, by the way, but I thought our guys took the challenge” after he was injured, the coach added. “It’s a good group of receivers, especially the vertical passing and Bortles does a good job of throwing the fade and the back-shoulder. They kept trying to hit us on the drive route, we played a little more cover-two, we were doing some different typed of coverages on them but I thought our guys did a good job.”
Bortles completed only 13 of 26 passes on the day, marking the sixth time an opposing quarterback posted a completion percentage of 50 percent or less in Ryan’s two years with the Bills (Bortles and Ryan Fitzpatrick account for four of them; Colin Kaepernick and Kellen Moore have the others). Bortles went without an interception for only the third time this season and also ran for a career-high 81 yards.
“There’s a lot of checkdowns in those 13 catches,” cornerback Nickell-Robey Coleman said. “… He actually had a better day than I thought he was going to have. I wanted to pick him off about four or five times.”
What had Ryan upset were Bortles’ two short touchdowns – a 20-yard catch-and-run by Marqise Lee and a 12-yarder to Allen Hurns. The Bills led the league in red-zone defense earlier this season.
“Very disappointed in a couple of plays in the red zone,” Ryan said. “… Right now, we can’t stop anybody, so we’ve got to do a better job, tighten up what we do. Communication’s got to be big and we just got to play the defense called and quit hurting ourselves with penalties, especially down there.”
Corners Kevon Seymour, Robey-Coleman and White saw expanded roles after Darby went out. Along with Stephon Gilmore, who had a strong game, they held Pro Bowler Allen Robinson two just two catches for 24 yards. Hurns and Lee were also kept in check, but both beat Bills defensive backs for touchdowns.
“As players, we have to pay attention to more small details about assignments,” Robey-Coleman said of the red-zone D. “We got the big picture, but if everybody just tunes into the small details of their assignment, then that’s going to make us better. That was the difference from the first half of the season to now, the details.
“As players, we need to be more detailed. That’s not on the coaches, that’s on us,” he continued (Rob Ryan was the coach singled out for their great red-zone work earlier this season). “We have to hone in on the details of our assignments when we’re in the red zone. If you want to be a defense that bends and never breaks, that is a prime example of a defense that breaks. We can’t break. The first half of the season we bended but we never broke.”
The Bills will get back to work on that this week, with large challenges ahead. They travel to Oakland Sunday, where they’ll have to deal with former top-10 picks Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and face Antonio Brown and the Steelers the following week.