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Secondary jumble

Posted Oct 28, 2008

Bills head coach Dick Jauron made the state of Buffalo’s secondary plain following last Sunday’s game at Miami. Terrence McGee had returned to the lineup after a two game absence due to a sprained MCL, but still wasn’t 100 percent. The Dolphins took advantage of him for most of the game with Ted Ginn rolling up a career high day in receiving yardage. Following the game Jauron defended the decision to play McGee.

“He was well enough to play,” said Jauron. “I wouldn’t put a percentage on what he was but we needed him back and he was good enough to play and we have to start getting him back and he’s critical to our football team and a really good player.”

It was obvious with Ashton Youboty unavailable that Jauron and his staff preferred McGee at 85 percent to one of their more inexperienced cornerbacks last Sunday. And when you look at what opponents have been able to do against Buffalo’s secondary since McGee has been absent you understand why Jauron was so eager to see him back on the field.

McGee suffered a sprained MCL on the first series of the St. Louis game in Week 4 and Leodis McKelvin and Ashton Youboty did an effective job filling in for him.

But in Week 5 with McGee still out, Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals picked them apart. In addition they lost Ko Simpson to a hamstring injury and Youboty developed a nagging foot injury.

Coming off the bye Youboty was unable to play, McGee was still out and the real shuffling began. Donte Whitner played nickel corner and free safety, Bryan Scott played strong safety and in the nickel package George Wilson played free.

Though McGee returned to the lineup last Sunday, Youboty was still out, with Whitner forced to wear two hats again, Scott was again at strong safety and Simpson played free in the nickel.

While some of what Buffalo has done in their defensive backfield the past three games was for strategic reasons, the results have been less than impressive. All the lineup juggling, due mainly to injury has appeared to compromise the secondary’s continuity and effectiveness.

“It’s not ideal,” said Jauron of the health of his secondary. “You’d like to have that continuity all of the time, but in our business, you don’t. You have to deal with injuries and we’re dealing with them and they’re dealing with them and trying to play through them and going through some different groupings back there, but you’d love to have them all up and healthy. You just very rarely get that.”

Adjusting has proven difficult as the pass defense numbers from Buffalo’s first four games stand in stark contrast to what has happened over their last three outings. Coming out of the St. Louis game when the injuries first hit the secondary, Buffalo was ranked sixth against the pass surrendering just under 169 yards per game.

Over the last three games opponents have averaged more than 257 yards through the air. Opponents completion percentage was under 50 percent (49.6%) in the first four games. In the last three games it’s an astounding 76.2 percent.

Opposing quarterbacks in the first four games had just two touchdown passes against three interceptions. In the last three games it’s been five touchdown passes and one INT.

The passer rating of opposing signal callers over the first month of the season was a measly 64.3. In the last three games the opponent passer rating is an alarming 109.8, which would be tops in the NFL among individual quarterbacks.

“We gave up some big plays,” said Donte Whitner of the team’s most recent outing. “Those three or four long passes that we gave up was a total of like 150-something yards, so we take that off of the board, we’ll sit pretty well, but we didn’t, and that’s something that we have to correct.”

Of course the passing game success of their opponents the past three games isn’t all on the Bills defensive backfield. There has to be more pressure up front. Buffalo had 10 sacks in its first four games, but has just three quarterback takedowns in their last three contests.

Injury has been a factor there as well with Aaron Schobel down with a foot injury forcing him to miss the last two games. Of course establishing pressure has been challenging of late with the quick passing game opponents have been using against Buffalo’s defensive front.

It may soon force Buffalo’s defensive backs to play more press coverage than they want in order to keep quarterbacks from getting the ball out quickly in rhythm and negating the rush.

Still the injury that appears to have created the biggest domino effect has been Youboty. Replacing McGee on the outside required plugging in Youboty or McKelvin, but Youboty’s absence required a total re-shuffling of Buffalo’s subpackages.

“He’s definitely an important piece,” said Whitner. “I don’t think that Terrence would have played as much (last week) if Ashton were healthy. Ashton is working on whatever his injury is and he’s going to get it better. And we’ll hopefully have him back soon because we really need him. He’s a part of this team and he’s a big piece of the puzzle on defense.”

Right now Buffalo’s secondary is trying to re-assemble what was a very lock-tight unit. McGee came out of Sunday’s game no worse for the wear, so there’s a chance he’ll truly be 100 percent for this weekend’s game. Youboty, however, remains a question mark. 

Regardless of who is and who is not available Sunday the Bills defensive backfield has to get back to their playmaking performances of the first four games with the likes of Brett Favre, Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery up next.

“We have Favre and those guys coming in,” said Whitner. “They have a talented football team and they want to throw the football. So we’re going to have our hands full this week, but if we don’t give up big plays, we’re pretty hard to beat.”