The Buffalo Bills have an unexpected competition on their hands.
Veteran cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Phillip Gaines rotated with the first-team defense Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals at New Era Field during a 26-13 defeat.
"It's just the competition at the position. There's still open competition at every position, and that's no different," coach Sean McDermott said after the game. "It's close. We were looking at combinations we had worked at this week in practice. I thought Vontae had some good moments in the game and some moments that he'd like back and the same could be said for Phillip as well."
Leading up to Sunday, Davis had been the starter opposite Tre'Davious White throughout the summer, so it was significant to see him share snaps.
"They just want to get reps with the first team, me and Phillip," Davis said.
If Gaines, who has also been sharing starting reps as the nickel cornerback with rookie Taron Johnson, was aware of the plan to rotate in with the first team, he wasn't letting on after the game.
"Everybody in the room just gets ready when their number's called," he said. "We all just rotate in. Whenever it comes up, you're just ready."
"Ready" is not a word that would accurately describe the secondary Sunday. A week after the Bills' first-team run defense was gashed against the Cleveland Browns, the defensive backfield took its turn on the spit against the Bengals. The very first offensive play for Cincinnati was a 57-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to John Ross, who beat Davis clean on a stop-and-go move and then turned both Davis and safety Jordan Poyer inside out to make it to the end zone.
"They ran a double move and he got behind us," Davis said. "He made a good play. We weren't expecting that out of the gate. It was a good play on their part. It's something we've got to fix."
Said Poyer: "Today, it wasn't us on the back end. It wasn't how we want to play and what we want to be known for. It's a lot of things we've got to correct, and I believe the guys in the room will get them corrected and we'll move forward."
Things didn't get much better for the starting secondary after that. A.J. Green beat White for a 14-yard touchdown reception on Cincinnati's third possession. White's worst performance as a rookie last year came against Green, so Bills fans can breathe easy that Cincinnati is not on the regular-season schedule.
"We know in order to get where we want to go, we've got to work," Poyer said. "A team comes in here and hits us in the mouth … it's something really good to learn from. We've really got to be critical on ourselves watching tape."
The lone bright spot for the secondary was an interception by No. 3 safety Rafael Bush in the third quarter — continuing what has been a strong summer. Bush nearly broke his return for a pick-six before being brought down inside the Bengals' 30-yard line.
"Every time I catch a pick, I think in my mind I'm going to score," Bush said. "I practice that way, so when it happens in a game I try to duplicate the same. It's going back to my younger days, playing running back all throughout high school."
By the time Dalton was done, he had carved the Bills up to the tune of 11-of-16 passing for 180 yards and two touchdowns, and a passer rating of 145.8. Backup quarterback Matt Barkley went 9-of-16 for 112 yards as the Bengals had 367 total passing yards. Tyler Boyd, who was on the receiving end of the miracle touchdown that clinched a playoff berth for the Bills last year when the Bengals beat the Ravens, led Cincinnati on Sunday with four catches for 54 yards, while Green had four for 50 yards. Ross added one more catch to finish with 66 yards, but his touchdown reception set the tone.
"As bad as it was, it's the first play of the game," Gaines said. "That means there's a lot of ball to play. You take it for what it is and you keep moving. They can't win the game on the first play. You've just got to put that behind you and keep pushing."
Davis played into the second half, after the rest of the Bills' starters departed.
"That's encouraging," he said of his snap counts. "I've just been getting better physically. And getting back to myself."
A veteran of nine NFL seasons, he's been around long enough to know days like the secondary had Sunday will happen.
"That's what is going to make us good, putting negative plays behind us and moving forward," he said. "That's not the only negative play that's going to happen. It's good mental work for the secondary."
The question now, however, is whether Davis will be part of the group that tries to right the ship Sept. 9 in Baltimore.