McDonald: Darby and Gilmore could be special tandem

Posted Feb 18, 2016

It was just their first season together as a tandem in 2015, but if their production is any indication, Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore could be one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL this fall.

Both entered the league with quality credentials. Both earned starting roles as rookies. And in 2015 Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore both excelled as a tandem. Now after a year of being immersed in Rex Ryan’s highly demanding system, particularly for cornerbacks, the coverage tandem is poised to dominate in 2016.

“I think those guys have the opportunity to be the best tandem of cornerbacks in the league,” said Bills secondary coach Tim McDonald. “Those guys can do it all.”

The Denver Broncos with Chris Harris and Aqib Talib and a few other teams might have an argument with that statement, but Darby and Gilmore had numbers last season to back them up. Despite the fact that Gilmore missed the last four games due to injury and Darby missed a game and parts of another due to a groin injury, the pair ranked fifth (Darby) and eighth (Gilmore) in pass breakups in 2015.

Buffalo was the only team in the league who had both of their starting outside corners rank in the top 10 last season in that category. As effective as both Darby (21 PBUs) and Gilmore (18 PBUs) were in forcing incompletions, there was another part of Darby’s game in particular that caught McDonald off guard.

“Darby surprised me with his ability to tackle,” he said. “There are some short passes that can get out of the gate after the catch and he was really good at putting the ball down and limiting the gains immediately. I think he was better than advertised for us.

“He was a pleasant surprise and I’m excited about him. Not really knowing the system that well he hit the ground running as a youngster and he was basically a pure cover guy. But he picked a lot of things up and became a pretty sound player as the year went on.”

Gilmore and Darby have different body types. The veteran Gilmore is tall and powerful and can muscle up with some of the bigger wideouts in the league. Darby has a more compact build and elite speed, which helps him close quickly when his coverage isn’t air tight.

McDonald worked hard last season to focus on those differences to cater his coaching to each of their skill sets.

“We always say we don’t treat everybody the same, but we try to treat everybody fair,” said McDonald. “So that means working on the things that help each individual guy get better. Steph is a guy that every now and then has some trouble breaking down and getting back to the football because he’s so long, but he’s hard to throw the ball over. So you work on those thing to help him get better at the things he doesn’t do as well.

“Darby early in the season struggled a little bit with the ball being thrown down the field on him. He’s learned how to position his body a little bit better, but he’ll continue to work on that.”

One area in particular where both Darby and Gilmore need to take the next step is turning more of their pass breakups into takeaways.

“There’s a saying,” said McDonald. “If you touch it, you catch it. We dropped far too many interceptions. Those are opportunities. Those are game changers. I think Steph probably had a few more drops than Darby did. We talk about it all the time. Positioning your body the right way, positioning your hands the right way, thumbs up and thumbs together. Those guys are getting better at those things, but over time I think those guys will become pretty good and those PBUs will turn into interceptions.”

What encourages McDonald about where the duo is headed is the strong work ethic that they each possess. They also push one another to improve.

“Both of those guys are the type of guys who will commit themselves to getting better,” McDonald said. “They both want to be good. They both in my opinion have All-Pro potential. I’m looking forward to this year. To come in under that system, we don’t have the simplest system out there, but it’s a system that can be easily simplified especially for the guys who are playing mostly man coverage. And just understanding where their help is. Once they master that they’ll be even better.”