So little was expected of the Buffalo Bills' secondary this season.
You had a rookie starting at one cornerback spot, a presumed throw-in from a trade starting at the other, and a couple of safeties whose previous teams cast them adrift in free agency.
Yet, so far this group has managed to do so much. How much? This much: the Bills are the only team in the NFL not to allow a touchdown pass this season.
You'd think the four guys who have had a major hand in this through the team's 2-1 start would be anxious to deliver a collective "take that" to all of the doubters. They claim that isn't the case.
"We don't really worry about proving everybody else wrong," said E.J. Gaines, the cornerback who was largely viewed as an afterthought when he joined the Bills in August from the Los Angeles Rams (along with a second-round draft pick next year) in exchange for wide receiver Sammy Watkins. "I feel like our secondary is full of guys who have really grinded to get where they've been -- late-round picks, free agents, and guys who teams said they didn't want and we all met up here.
"In my opinion, it's destiny for all of us to come here and make plays for this defense and help us win."
Keeping the standout receiving duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders out of the end zone in last Sunday's 26-16 victory against the Denver Broncos was an impressive feat for Gaines, fellow cornerback Tre'Davious White, and safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. However, doing so with the somewhat pedestrian Trevor Siemian throwing the ball took a little bit away from the accomplishment.
Everything changes Sunday, when the Bills face the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Not only will they be dealing with exceptional receivers in Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Taylor Gabriel, they'll also be facing one of the game's very best quarterbacks in 10th-year veteran Matt Ryan.
The Falcons' offense ranks fourth overall in the NFL, while their passing game ranks seventh. The Bills have the league's sixth-ranked defense and are ninth against the pass.
Although Ryan and the Bills' Tyrod Taylor are tied for ninth in the NFL with a passer rating of 99.2, Ryan has 867 passing yards to Taylor's 562, although they each have four touchdown throws.
Jones is tied for 19th in the league with 16 receptions for 265 yards (an average of 16.6 yards per catch), while Sanu is tied for 25th with 15 catches for 160 yards (an average of 10.7 yards per reception) and a touchdown.
"One of the most explosive offenses that I've ever seen in my time being in the league," Gaines, a fourth-year veteran, said. "They've got big, fast, strong receivers and a quarterback that can throw pretty much any ball."
"He’s a hell of a football player, hell of a quarterback, a guy I grew up watching," Poyer said of Ryan. "He does a lot of good things, it’s not just one thing he does well over another thing. He can throw the deep ball, he can throw the crossers, and he manages (the offense) well. It’s going to be a test for us."
White, the Bills' first-round draft pick last April, has had a strong start to his NFL career. He made his first career interception last Sunday and received NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors Thursday.
Still, he can't help but feel at least a small sense of awe as he watches video of the Falcons' offense.
"Julio’s a guy I watched when I was in high school, so to be able to go against him, it’s going to be a big-time deal and something that I’ve waited for," White said.
In some ways, the Bills' zone-based coverage is perfect for a secondary with four players working together for the first time, and especially with one being a rookie. The pressures of having to handle someone like Jones man-to-man are minimized with the knowledge there is (or at least should be) help from someone else, especially deep.
On the flip side, there's the fact opposing quarterbacks and receivers can find seams to exploit, usually in the middle of the field. Passes have been and will continue to be completed against the Bills. The Falcons will likely come out attacking through the air, as the Broncos did last Sunday, given that they threw on nine of their first dozen plays in Week 3 against Detroit.
The Bills adhere to the bend-but-don't-break concept of defense. So far, nothing has broken in the end zone. White, who is supremely confident in his skills, intends to do his part to keep it that way.
"We’ve got to just try to limit the big plays, just try and stay over the top, make sure no guys get behind us," he said. "The offense is not patient, so they want to sort of take that shot. So we can continue to just tackle guys before they get YAC yards, or even cover guys over the top when they’re not getting big plays -- those 20-yard chunks -- so they’ll pretty much just get frustrated. Those guys are going to make some plays. It’s just a (matter) of us of just being calm and just limiting those big plays.
"If we limit the big plays, I feel like we’ve got a shot in every contest we have."