The life of a cornerback can often be thankless. The demands are high and the rewards are limited. Oftentimes they're not noticed unless the ball comes their way and that might happen only a half dozen times a game. Buffalo's team ranking against the pass isn't flattering (29th) as they're allowing almost 300 yards per game (297.8). However, through the first month of the season, rookie Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore have locked things down on the boundaries.
Buffalo's two cornerbacks have been thrown at more than anyone else in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Gilmore has seen 43 passes thrown his way, the most in the league, while Darby is tied for second with 36.
Darby ranks first in the league with an NFL record-tying 11 pass breakups. That figure matches the league mark for most passes defensed in the first four games of a season in NFL history with Detroit's Bryant Westbrook (1998). Naturally it leads the league as well. Meanwhile Gilmore ranks fourth in the league in pass breakups with six.
When it comes to total defensive plays on passes Gilmore stands seventh with seven (6 PBUs, 1 INT) with Darby again leading the league with 13 defensive plays on passes (11 PBUs, 2 INTs). The New York Giants are the only other team in the league with two players in the top 10 (Prince Amukamara, Uani 'Unga).
As much recognition as Darby has deservedly received, including NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for September last week, Gilmore has held up quite well on his side of the field too.
"I think he's playing extremely well," said head coach Rex Ryan of Gilmore. "He's made several great plays so you know he's playing like we envisioned him. He's one of the top guys certainly at that position so he's playing extremely well."
Opposing passers are completing less than 50 percent of their throws against Buffalo's top two corners. Gilmore is only allowing completions 49 percent of the time (48.8%) and Darby is only letting opposing quarterbacks complete passes 42 percent of the time (41.7%).
"He's done a great job. The thing I like most about him, he's got the pro mentality," said Ryan of Darby. "To play corner in this league there's a certain thing you have to have, and he has it. He can't wait to get back out there, challenge himself and compete. It's something he looks forward to. He loves to play."
This past Sunday facing the Giants' receiving tandem of Odell Beckham Jr. and Rueben Randle, Darby and Gilmore held their own. New York's two wideouts were targeted 18 times in the game by Eli Manning and combined for just six catches for 89 yards and a touchdown.
"I felt like I did good," said Darby. "I would have liked to have a turnover to help my team, but we're just going to have to keep going, week by week."
Darby and Gilmore were first and second in pass breakups against the Giants with three and two respectively to lead the team. Gilmore also had his first interception of the season in the fourth quarter on a third-and-goal from the Bills' eight-yard line.
"I had to be aggressive and they were dinking and dunking us so I decided I had to be aggressive and jump some routes and try to get the ball back to our offense," said Gilmore of his INT intended for Randle.
Beckham had just five catches for 38 yards. It was Beckham's lowest output since his third career game almost a year ago against Dallas.
For Gilmore, injuries the last couple of years have stunted his growth, but so far this season Ryan sees steady improvement each week. That's why he's confident respect and recognition for Gilmore will soon follow.
"I think it's coming," Ryan said. "You can't ignore it, it's on tape. People will realize how good a player he is. The days of him not going to the Pro Bowl…you know those days are long gone."
The opposing passer rating against Gilmore is only 75.7, and for Darby it's an anemic 31.4, the third-lowest in the league. The only cornerbacks with a lower opponent passer rating are Carolina's Josh Norman (23.1) and the Jets' Darrelle Revis (23.8).
"I have 100 percent confidence in him," said Gilmore of Darby. "You know we work every day in practice, he asks me questions, and he's making plays when they come his way so, I'm very confident in him. That's why we don't have to switch sides because I feel like he's making plays when they come his way."
The numbers couldn't agree more.