Buffalo's secondary is back to full strength with Terrence McGee back from injury. On Sunday however, Leodis McKelvin, who had started in place of McGee for four games was again manning the starting role at left cornerback. The decision proved to be a good one for the Bills as McKelvin rose to the challenge of covering Pro Bowl wideout Calvin Johnson.
"He's played well, probably (Sunday) was one of his better games, maybe his best game," said head coach Chan Gailey. "He's played extremely well. I've been impressed with him, but I didn't expect anything less than that from him."
"We did a great job on both sides as safeties and corners in not giving up the big play," said McKelvin. "Even though (Johnson) did get 10 catches for 120 something yards, they were all short. He broke a couple of tackles, but we kept him under control with the exception of that touchdown play."
Johnson did score on a 20-yard touchdown reception with 14 seconds left to pull the Lions to within two when he motioned to the slot prior to the snap, but McKelvin's responsibility on that play was to cover the flat as he took Jahvid Best coming out of the backfield.
In fact Johnson's three longest pass plays from scrimmage (18, 20-TD, 29 yards) came when McKelvin was not covering the Lions' top wideout. Johnson had six catches for 53 yards (8.8 avg.) when matched up with McKelvin on the day, with the cornerback recording a season-high three pass breakups.
One of those came on a 3rd-and-4 at the Bills seven-yard line at the end of the first half, which McKelvin nearly pulled in for an interception.
"I did my best to focus on catching the ball, and not let them get any points," he said. "They ended up getting three. Looking at the replay the point of the ball may have touched the ground."
Heading into his third NFL season and coming off a sophomore campaign that was cut short by a broken fibula, McKelvin wanted year three of his career to be a big one. However, the cornerback struggled to find consistency in his game in training camp and entered the regular season as the team's third corner behind McGee and veteran Drayton Florence.
In his five starts in place of the injured McGee, the former first-round pick has worked to improve his consistency series to series, but he had a tough outing against Chicago's Earl Bennett in Week 8. The Bears receiver had three receptions of 10 yards or more as well as a short touchdown catch against McKelvin in Buffalo's three-point loss (22-19).
Eager to make good, the Bills cornerback approached his outing against a familiar adversary this past Sunday as a chance for redemption.
"It's not the first time I've faced him," said McKelvin of Johnson. "I faced him in high school, college and now it's the NFL. It was fun going against Calvin, especially in high school when he was at Sandy Creek and at Georgia Tech. You've just got to stay top down, let him eat up those short yards and not let him get any big plays. If you can do that you can control him."
Knowing you're only as good as your last performance, McKelvin is hoping his solid outing Sunday can keep him in the starting lineup.
"As you see all of our corners are healthy now," he said. "That means I've got to start playing or I'm going to be sitting on the sidelines and only going in on nickel and I don't like that. Just as a player you want to be out on the field and you want to make plays."
Gailey indicated that the starting left cornerback role might need to be shared due in part to the need for McKelvin to help out the team's return units with Roscoe Parrish lost for the season and C.J. Spiller out at least this week with a hamstring injury.
"The one thing that is probably going to happen now in light of all our circumstances is Leodis is going to have to be the kickoff and punt return guy or at least heavily involved in those two areas," Gailey said. "So I think we feel better about using a combination of players in the secondary and then they'll be times when both (McGee and McKelvin) and Drayton will be on the field at the same time with the way offenses go today. You're going to need all the guys that you can get and they're all going to need to play a lot and play well."
McKelvin already holds the franchise's single season mark for most kick return yards (1,468 – 2008). Punt returns however, have been few and far between for McKelvin, who previously had only two career punt returns before Sunday. He muffed his first attempt, but with some quick thinking he was able to avoid turning the ball over deep in his own territory.
"As you see I was kind of rusty," said McKelvin of his muffed punt return. "It held up there in the wind and I short-armed it and luckily I was able to kick it right out of bounds so there wouldn't be any problems."
McKelvin bounced back with a 78-yard return for a touchdown midway through the third quarter that would've iced the game had it not been for a very questionable holding call. Though the penalty nullified the score it gave McKelvin the boost of confidence he needed.
"Everything got back to normal when we got up the field and I felt like I was back in college," he said. "It felt like me just going back to my responsibilities all my life. (Through college, I had) always been a starting return guy. I think I can go out there and get the job done. I'm just thankful that I'm back there."
Gailey feels fortunate to have so many capable return threats.
"Our hat's off to Leodis for the job he did returning kickoffs and punts," Gailey said. "He did a really nice job. Not many teams have that luxury, (but) we do."
Just getting the feel of the ball in his hands, McKelvin said it made him want to make more plays on defense. Whether he's still a starter come Sunday will be determined by the defensive staff.
"I feel like I can make plays for this defense and go out there and be a key contributor and get turnovers," said McKelvin. "It's time for me to step it up, tune into my keys, watch film and just go out there and make plays."
"He's a very good player," said Gailey. "He can be a great player. If he continues to work and improve he will be a great player as time goes on."
Tyler Diedrich contributed to this story