After a rough performance in Week 2, it was tough to say that cornerback play was a team strength for the Buffalo Bills. After all, Tom Brady had just thrown for almost 500 yards, and New England scored 40 points. Today, however, I am here to tell you that cornerback play is, in fact, a team strength for the Bills - and it could be argued that they are one of the top units in the entire NFL.
Football Outsiders has the Bills ranked No. 1 in the league against No. 1 wide receivers, and No. 12 against No. 2 receivers so far this season. These corners - we're talking about Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, by the way - are top-notch.
Week 4 was a great example of this, as Odell Beckham and Rueben Randle were targeted a total of 18 times. They only caught eight of those targets for 69 yards, keeping them under 4.0 yards per attempt. While the Bills did lose the game, it wasn't because of their cornerbacks.
Playing devil's advocate, you might argue that they were protected by their safeties and linebackers dropping into coverage to give them help, but that isn't the case; both of these corners were left on islands and played some of the best man-to-man defense against quality wide receivers that I have seen in a long time.
For starters, here is one of Beckham's five receptions:
One of the toughest covers in the whole league... getting 0 separation— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 6, 2015
A quick slant complete for six yards. Beckham is one of the NFL's top wide receivers, and this was as open as he was all game. Another example, this time on a deep ball to Beckham:
Gilmore was all over Beckham so bad, that ODB couldn't even play madden that night— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 6, 2015
Better look, Gilmore has ODB in his pocket— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 6, 2015
I joke about Gilmore having Beckham in his pocket because, for the entire game, he really was hip to hip with him. Prior to Sunday, whenever Beckham had at least 10 targets, his lowest yardage game was 93 yards, but on Sunday he was targeted 12 times and only had 38 yards.
GMen were pounding the run, got silly on 3rd + 2 & tried to throw to ODB again. Gilmore still had him in his pocket— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 6, 2015
The back-shoulder fade and the quick slant are two of the toughest routes to cover for a cornerback - and they are staples of the Giants' offense - but they looked off for the entire game. Was it Eli Manning, or was it just really tough to throw when you are facing coverage like this?
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 6, 2015
The Giants couldn't even complete a quick out against off coverage:
Gilmore finally is playing off... ODB thinks he might get one.... naaaaw— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 6, 2015
Gilmore's interception is a textbook example of how to play a slant at the goal line. He gives no ground, breaks hard when the receiver makes his break, and powers through to the point of contact to win the football. This is defensive back pornography right here.
Can't play a slant at the endzone any better than this. If somehow Bills comeback, might've gotten someone fired— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 5, 2015
It wasn't just Gilmore, either; preseason whipping boy Darby was excellent, as well. Look at how breaks on the football. He is all over guys.
Darby even getting in on the ODB fun— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 6, 2015
Watch Darby's footwork: no wasted steps, running stride-for-stride with Randle.
Darby all over Randle— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 7, 2015
Can you play a fade against one of the most acrobatic receivers in the league any better?
Darby playing the fade to Beckham perfectly.. can't ask for much more from the rookie pic.twitter.com/19lkPijT41— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 5, 2015
Close up of Darby playing the fade vs Beckham— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 7, 2015
Darby looks like a steal. In fact, once Leodis McKelvin is healthy, I do not know how you can put the rookie on the bench. He has earned the starting cornerback job, in my opinion.
I also want to stress that the Bills' cornerbacks are not perfect. Randle caught a slant for a touchdown against Gilmore, but even there, I would argue that Gilmore was playing outside leverage because he had help from underneath defenders whose sole job was to prevent these types of quick, inside-breaking routes. Notice the underneath defender opening up the slight window for Manning to make the throw.
On Randle TD, Gilmore has outside leverage bc of the dropping defenders (to stop slant), Eli fits it in tight window— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) October 6, 2015
Other teams will always make some plays, because they are professionals just like the Bills are. What I wanted to illustrate here was that the Bills - who some have said are weak at the cornerback position - are most definitely not. In fact, I would say it is one of the strongest positions on the team.
My favorite stat from Week 4? The last catch allowed by Gilmore or Darby was with 10:44 left in the second quarter. New York's receivers were shut out for the rest of the game. That is over 40 minutes of football! For the last two-thirds of the game, a receiver lined up on Gilmore or Darby outside did not make a catch. That is incredible defense. Good luck to the Tennessee Titans' wideouts trying to work guys open against these two shut-down corners, because I guarantee you it will be one of their toughest matchups of the year.