The veteran defensive backs on Buffalo's roster told rookie cornerbacks Aaron Williams and Justin Rogers to prepare every week as if you're starting. That time has come for Williams and Rogers. Both are going to see their roles increase significantly over the final six weeks of the regular season.
With Terrence McGee's season-ending knee surgery landing him on injured reserve Buffalo is going to be relying on Williams, who is expected to start at left cornerback in McGee's absence.
Williams had a solid training camp and played in each of the first three games, primarily in the team's nickel packages. The Texas product would come on and play left cornerback, while McGee would move into the slot. But Williams sustained a shoulder/chest injury in Week 3 against the Patriots and missed the next six games.
Last week was the first game action he's seen since the injury, but head coach Chan Gailey felt he held his own after a seven-week layoff.
"He didn't do a bad job," said Gailey. "They caught a big third down on him early in the game, but other than that he did some good things."
Williams admits it was an adjustment getting re-acclimated to playing under live fire, but is glad he did knowing his role figures to be much larger this week against the Jets.
"I was a little nervous at first coming into the Miami game because I never actually had contact or fell on the ground of hit somebody hard," Williams told Buffalobills.com. "But after I had my first hit I realized there wasn't that much pain and I would be fine. The mental part is over with. I know I can handle the pain and still fight through it."
Williams doesn't believe he'll be a full 100 percent healthy the rest of the season, but has been at the facility every Tuesday for extra treatment and weight room work to be as strong as possible the rest of the way.
Though Williams missed the first matchup with the Jets, due to his injury, he was a focused observer from the sidelines during that game.
"I looked real close at what Plaxico (Burress) was doing and what (Santonio) Holmes was doing and now Jeremy (Kerley) is playing," he said of the Jets receiving corps. "So all I can do is just learn from what the film shows and apply it to the field."
For Justin Rogers the path to the playing field was a bit different. Slowed by an ankle injury in training camp, Rogers was behind from the start, but showed well enough in the preseason to earn a spot on the roster. The Richmond product was inactive for the first three games of the season, but won a role on special teams appearing in the next six games.
There were a few snaps here and there on defense, but last week against Miami was his most extensive action after the injury to McGee. With Leodis McKelvin benched, Rogers saw time in Buffalo's nickel packages.
"They were pretty much running the ball so we didn't get too complex with running a lot of calls," said Rogers. "I was only out there in nickel. It went well, but I know these next couple of weeks with the game on the line there are a lot more calls. It'll be a challenge."
Rogers feels mastering the playbook is where he's made his biggest strides since camp. No longer is he thinking out on the field, which he believes has him playing faster and more instinctively.
Gailey did say earlier in the week that McGee's injury could change where McKelvin currently sits on Buffalo's depth chart, which as of last week was behind the rookie Rogers.
No matter what McKelvin's role is the rest of the way both Williams and Rogers are going to see a lot more time on defense. With more playing time the rookies are fully aware they're going to be targeted by opposing quarterbacks.
"As soon as I stepped in against Miami they came right to me and gave me my shot," Williams said. "When they see a rookie or that 'R' next to your name on the roster they want to see if they can take advantage of that and test you a bit. But I love that. I love being tested and love the pressure and love the fact that the ball is going to be coming my way. It just gives me more chances of making interceptions or making plays for my team."
"(Secondary) coach (George) Catavolos tells us all the time that if you're a rookie you should already know that the ball is coming your way," said Rogers. "So you've got to accept it as a challenge. It's a battle between you and that receiver and that's every down and you want to win as many as you can. You have to seize the opportunity to make plays."
The rookie corners know they haven't had a ton of time on defense in their brief NFL careers, but they're determined to effectively fill the gaps in Buffalo's secondary and perhaps even provide a spark for a defensive backfield desperate for some takeaways.
"This week we're really going to have to jell together so we have that bond on the field and communicate," said Williams. "We're the last line of defense so we can mean the difference between six and just a harmless play."
"We both came in together and we're both rookies and we're both competitors," said Rogers. "We want people to know that even though we've got people down we can come in and do just as well."