ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The typical coachspeak is “next man up.” Injuries are a part of football, and coaches expect players to step in at a moment’s notice and produce.
But Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier acknowledged it’s not always that simple -- especially for a secondary that's had three different combinations start at outside cornerback.
“It is for sure challenging, not knowing week to week which guy's gonna start, and as you are trying to look at practice and trying to determine who warrants more snaps,” Frazier said. “We haven't had to do that in the past. We had usually four guys that were pretty healthy, for the most part, and they were in the lineup, week in and week out. That hasn't been the case this year.”
Rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford have spent time rotating opposite 2020 seventh-round pick Dane Jackson. None of the three have been available for every game. And that’s not getting into the changing faces at safety.
The Bills are relying on a mixture of players, including plenty of youth, while cornerback Tre’Davious White works his way back from a torn left ACL. They've been tasked with playing major roles on a defense that led the league last season in points and yards allowed per game and is fifth and 13th in those respective categories this season.
"Everybody's getting a chance to play, which it's probably not even ... heard of in the NFL cause you always have like two guys [stay healthy],” Elam told ESPN.
The Bills face the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving (12:30 p.m. ET, CBS), a team that has won three straight and leads the league in percentage of completions gaining 20-plus yards (18.1%). Buffalo appears close to getting Elam back from an ankle injury he suffered on the second play of a Week 5 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers but re-injured in Week 9. The game will also mark the anniversary of White’s injury suffered on Thanksgiving last year, while questions remain about his return date.
“[The cornerbacks] are a resilient group. They're extremely tough. We have a lot of confidence in all of them,” coach Sean McDermott said. “Obviously there's been some guys in and out of the lineup due to injury.”
The Bills are tied for the league lead in interceptions (13) with those coming from seven different players, but the team has given up some big yardage. The defense is 20th in passing yards allowed per game (220.8). Last year, only Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Chris Godwin had over 100 receiving yards in a game against the Bills. Already this season, six players have done it. This week may be a good opportunity to break that trend as the Lions have had receivers go over 100 yards only three times.
The duo of Jackson and Elam have started the most games (five). Elam has missed the last two but has been a full participant in practice since last Thursday. In his absence, Benford played 96.4% of snaps against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10, but then split time with veteran practice squad cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who played his first snaps as a Bill on Sunday. The team wanted to see where Rhodes was after injuring his hamstring in his first week with the team.
The veteran has also developed into a mentor of sorts for the Bills’ first-round pick.
“Coming in, I always felt like I had to do everything alone by myself,” Elam said. “And having somebody like Xavier with so much experience, he's always making sure from a mental standpoint, I'm good. Making sure from technique side, like making sure I'm just honing in on that. And he wants to see me succeed and do well in this system. That's something I really appreciate.”
Safety Micah Hyde is on injured reserve, but prior to that, he and safety Jordan Poyer started 79 games together, by far the most of any safety pair over the past six seasons (Darnell Savage/Adrian Amos, Packers, 48), according to Elias Sports Bureau. Poyer has missed four games this year with 2021 sixth-round pick Damar Hamlin starting alongside him when active.
The looming missing piece for the Bills is White. Before the 2019 All-Pro tore his ACL, he had missed a combined three regular-season games since being draft by the Bills 27th overall in the 2017 draft. White has been on the active roster and not on the injury report or participating in games since he was activated from the reserve/PUP list on November 1. He declined to speak Tuesday.
“It's just more of a team decision and making sure he's ready, and in a good spot here,” McDermott said. “So, we'll just keep taking it, like I said, one day at a time here.”
Elam noted how he has been able to learn from White even when the veteran is not on the field. And while the team has not shared the specifics behind White’s work to return, teammates have noticed he’s seeming more like his old self.
“He's getting his confidence back, getting his swag back, more importantly. He's out there with a mindset. And I anticipate him hopefully making his return soon,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. “He's a hell of a player, man. I just can't wait to see him back out there.”