The Buffalo Bills' cornerbacks were in the middle of the action all day in Sunday's win over the Denver Broncos.
Denver targeted star receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders 24 times in the 26-16 Bills victory. They combined for 13 catches and 173 yards.
But Bills cornerbacks Tre'Davious White and E.J. Gaines kept them out of the end zone and kept them from making game-turning plays.
Denver crossed midfield on seven drives and ran 34 plays in Bills' territory. Thomas and Sanders produced just three catches for 20 yards on the Bills' side of the field.
White deserves credit for nine positive plays and only two or three negative plays, according to The News' video review of the game. Gaines had six positive plays in coverage. Both corners had an interception.
White showed no tentativeness in facing two perennial 1,000-yard receivers.
"That's what I play for," White said. "I'm a 100 percent competitor, that's what I love to do. I want to go against the best, on one of the highest stages I can do it on, just having fun. If you're not having fun, I don't know why you are doing it."
Here's our unit-by-unit grading of the Bills' win based on video review, starting with the defensive backfield:
Defensive backs (4.0): White continues to show great anticipation. A good example came late in the third quarter with Denver trailing, 20-16, and facing a third-and-5 situation from its own 29. Sanders is quick in the short area and hard to stop on "pivot routes," the Wes Welker-style play in which the receiver fakes to the inside and pivots quickly to the outside. White was all over the pass, stopping Sanders for a 3-yard gain and forcing a punt.
"I knew they had that in their repertoire to the single receiver side," White said. "Against Dallas, Demaryius did it in the middle of the field. Emmanuel did it and caught a touchdown on it. They had never done it from that tight of a split. But the backfield was empty. I knew they had to get the ball out, and I just reacted."
White hustled to knock the ball away from Sanders on what would have been a 44-yard pass (safety Micah Hyde took the blame). His press coverage on Thomas forced QB Trevor Siemian to scramble on a third down. His INT was easy.
He got beat on an out-and-up to Sanders for 29 yards, although the Bills were in Cover 2 so Jordan Poyer was there for the tackle. Otherwise, giving up a 12-yard completion in off-zone coverage is not "getting beat."
Gaines did a lot of little-noticed plays. He locked up Sanders early to force a scramble. He chucked Cody Latimer in press coverage to force a red-zone incompletion. He didn't bite in the end zone on a Thomas fake to the outside and was there to bat away a Siemian pass (that was slightly underthrown).
Defensive line (3.5): Defensive chief Leslie Frazier pulled out a new wrinkle on the Broncos. Buffalo played a "30" front, with five linemen and two inside linebackers on six plays, by The News' count. The first five plays produced only 8 yards for Denver. The sixth was a 23-yard pass play. It was a change-up to force Denver's rolling running game to adjust.
Kyle Williams had a tough assignment going against quality run-blocking guard Ron Leary a lot, yet Williams still made key impact plays on the defensive line. On the Broncos' field-goal drive early in the third quarter, Williams made three good plays in a row. He beat Leary in a gap for a run-stuff at the Buffalo 15. On the next play, he clogged the middle on a 2-yard run. On the next play he beat a double-team to hold Jamaal Charles to 3 yards. Williams derailed the next Denver drive by drawing a holding penalty on Leary. Those were big plays when the tide was turning Buffalo's way.
How did the Bills do without Marcell Dareus? Just fine. Cedric Thornton and Adolphus Washington both played about half the snaps. Thornton was stout early on a Charles no-gainer. Washington beat guard Max Garcia to stuff C.J. Anderson for a 3-yard loss. Washington was flagged for illegal hands to the face on a third down in the fourth quarter. It was a dubious call. He beat Garcia and had his hand on the guard's collar, not his facemask.
The Broncos' bootlegs limited Jerry Hughes a bit but he gave a high-effort performance, as usual. He drew one ill-advised roughing-the-passer penalty.
Eddie Yarbrough played only 18 snaps but he made four good plays. He showed off his 4.69 speed twice by attacking bootlegs as the weak-side, unblocked end. He got into Trevor Siemian's face so fast in the fourth quarter, he forced a desperation throw that was picked off.
Linebackers (4.0): Lorenzo Alexander continues to be Mr. Versatility for the defense. He has rushed the passer on 45 snaps so far (either as a defensive end or blitzing linebacker) and dropped into coverage on 38, by The News' count. He's playing 56 percent of the defensive downs this season. Alexander showed off a spin move to whip Garcia for a sack. He alertly shot a gap a pulling guard left and stuffed a run. He strung out a reverse on the sideline. Ramon Humber continues to give the Bills solid coverage. He's playing 94 percent of the snaps. Humber shows speed to the sideline but has not yet been prone to overrunning inside run plays. He did flow too far inside on C.J. Anderson's 32-yard run in the second quarter. The Bills got caught with Jordan Poyer at the line of scrimmage on the play, which helped the back bust loose.
Quarterback (3.5): Tyrod Taylor engineered three long scoring drives and played smart against a dangerous, turnover-hungry defense. Highlights were the beautiful throw on a dead run to Nick O'Leary for 31 yards, the 25-yard touch pass to Jordan Matthews and a take-a-hit throw to Kaelin Clay for 28 yards. On the pass to O'Leary, Von Miller mirrored Taylor on the bootleg, rather than charging him, because he had to respect Taylor's ability to run around end. Against many others, Miller would have been in the QB's face and forced a bad throw. Taylor had a great scramble on the last FG drive, too.
Running back (2.5): LeSean McCoy only produced 69 yards. It was nice to see him press the edge hard, rather than dance, on some fourth-quarter zone runs. He left Corey Nelson and Justin Simmons sprawling on the ground on a key, 7-yard catch and run that led to the Bills' last field goal.
Receivers (2.5): Credit here goes to the coaches, who lined the wideouts up in stack formations to create criss-crosses, thwart pressing and get quick separation against Denver's elite man-coverage cornerbacks. O'Leary is a work in progress blocking but showed off his good hands on the diving catch. Matthews is a quality, eager blocker on the edge for the Bills' stretch plays.
Offensive line (2.5): Again, the game plan kept the offensive line out of awful pass-protecting situations. The Bills dropped back to pass 33 times and ran play-action fakes on 14 plays. Taylor was 8 of 10 for 95 yards on play-action passes. Miller played most of the game on Jordan Mills' side. Miller rushed off left tackle only on five pass plays. He beat Dion Dawkins for a sack early and a 4-yard tackle for loss of McCoy. He beat Mills for a couple hurries. But both tackles survived the game without having their confidence torched, which is a victory. Dawkins likes to drive-block. Richie Incognito gave up a sack and got called for an iffy holding penalty.
Special teams (5.0): Stephen Hauschka's field goals of 55, 53 and 49 yards should come as no surprise. He now has made nine straight attempts and 14 of his last 16 from 50-plus yards. The Bills were all over the fake punt late in the third quarter thanks to heads-up communication by Joe Webb. Deon Lacey crashed the edge to stuff the play. Brandon Tate's 17-yard punt return produced a field goal. He had room to roam because of good blocking on the outside by the Taiwan Jones-Robert Blanton and Shareece Wright-Johnson tandems.
Bills stars of the game: 1. Tyrod Taylor. 2. Tre'Davious White. 3. E.J. Gaines.
Broncos stars of the game: 1. Todd Davis. 2. Von Miller. 3. Demaryius Thomas.