Dissecting the Buffalo Bills’ cornerback conundrum

09/18/2018
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The Buffalo Bills’ defense has gotten absolutely scorched en route to the team’s 0-2 start this season. There are many things factoring into that, but a glaring one is what was done at the cornerback position this offseason. The difference between this year’s unit and last year’s is night and day.

For reference, here are the snap counts for the players who suited up at CB for the Bills last season. Tre’Davious White (98.7%) led the way, followed by Leonard Johnson (60.7%), E.J. Gaines (59%), Shareece Wright (41%), Lafayette Pitts (2.7%), and Greg Mabin (2.5%).

From that group, Pitts and White are the only two still on the Bills roster.

Here’s how playing time has been divvied out for Buffalo’s CBs through two games this season. White leads (98%), then Phillip Gaines (64%), Pitts (22%), Vontae Davis (21%), and Taron Johnson (12%). Also, safety Rafael Bush has played 51-percent of the defensive snaps, with a good amount of those coming at the nickel corner position.

It’s evident that the Bills have a lot of new faces defending the boundaries this season, but so far, it hasn’t panned out.

To kick off the year, Buffalo’s defense has allowed 39 points per game, 31st in the NFL. Through two games last season, the defense only surrendered 10.5 points per contest. That’s nearly a 30-point difference.

The team’s tied for 29th in the league in turnover differential, posting a minus-three mark. That seems to be a glaring issue, this year’s secondary simply isn’t taking the ball away.

In the first two games last season, the Bills recorded two interceptions and 13 passes defensed.

Through two weeks this season, Buffalo doesn’t have a single INT. They’re the only team in the AFC without a pick. Only three other teams (DAL, SF, TB) have failed to intercept the opposing quarterback.

Not only aren’t they forcing turnovers, but they’re also not making plays on the ball. The team only has six PDs, way down from last year’s total. Of those six pass breakups this season, only one was recorded by a CB. The other five were by a lineman or linebackers.

The Bills can’t blame anyone but themselves for these struggles. They completely gutted a unit that excelled in 2017. They lost a solid starter in E.J Gaines. When he wasn’t healthy, Johnson and Wright were very serviceable behind him. Unfortunately for Buffalo, none of those players are on their team anymore.

Instead, they opted to bring in Davis, Phillip Gaines, and Taron Johnson. The Davis signing couldn’t have gone any worse, as he retired during halftime of last Sunday’s game against the Chargers, though there was no predicting that.

Phillip Gaines was slotted into the starting role week one and didn’t impress. Gaines finished that game with four tackles and one PD, but he gave up some big plays that he’d like to have back. Then in week two, luck wasn’t on his side, as he suffered a dislocated elbow in the team’s 31-20 loss.

Johnson, who the Bills selected in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft out of Weber State, showed some promise in his week one debut. However, he suffered a shoulder injury that resulted in him being inactive in week two.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott provided an update on the injuries of Gaines and Johnson.

“Phillip Gaines does have a dislocated elbow; there’s still a chance that he can play this week, we’ll see how that goes,” said McDermott. “Taron Johnson continues to progress and will remain day-to-day.”

With Davis’s abrupt retirement, and Davis and Johnson battling injury, the Bills are hurting at CB. In July, I wrote about depth being an issue in 2018, and that’s certainly coming into fruition.

However, on Tuesday afternoon Bills general manager Brandon Beane did address the CB position, making a pair of moves. The most notable was signing CB Ryan Lewis to the team’s 53-man roster from the practice squad. In addition, they signed CB Michael Hunter and WR Hunter Sharp to the practice squad.

Lewis spent the 2017 season on the New England Patriots’ practice squad, though he originally entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2017 with the Arizona Cardinals. The 6’0″, 200-pound CB attended the University of Pittsburgh and played in 51 games, recording 103 tackles, 10 PDs, and two INTs. He very well could make his NFL debut this Sunday in Minnesota against the Vikings.

If the Bills are eyeing another move at CB, there are a few notable players on the free agent market. The most intriguing is Bashaud Breeland, a 26-year-old CB who spent four seasons with the Washington Redskins. In 60 career games (58 starts), Breeland recorded 268 tackles, 59 PDs, eight INTs, seven FFs, two FRs, and one defensive TD. It’s kind of bizarre that he’s still unsigned, but you never know if there’s an off-the-field issue.

At the end of the day, CB isn’t the only position the Bills need to address. Other areas are equally poor, if not worse, which is a contributor to opponents outscoring the team 78-23 through two games. It just simply can’t go unnoticed how much this unit has regressed from a season ago.

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