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Stephon Gilmore having a sophomore season to forget

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills and many observers believe it will happen eventually, but this will not be the year cornerback Stephon Gilmore establishes himself as a shutdown defender.

In Thursday's paper, Buffalo News senior columnist Jerry Sullivan takes a look at Gilmore's unspectacular sophomore season.

Gilmore missed the first five games while recovering from a broken wrist and played his first two games with a heavy wrap on his arm. Unable to get physical with receivers, he has been targeted frequently by opposing quarterbacks since he returned.

ProFootballFocus.com tracks every play, and receivers covered by Gilmore have caught 30 of 49 throws for 455 yards and a touchdown for a 98.6 passer rating.

By comparison, Leodis McKelvin has allowed 38 catches on 77 targets for 480 yards and two TDs, a 77.8 opponent passer rating. Nickell Robey has allowed 24 catches on 49 targets for 225 yards and two TDs, a 58.6 opponent passer rating.

Here is a breakdown of Gilmore's performance in each of his seven games:

  • Week Six versus Cincinnati Bengals: three targets/three catches for 78 yards.
  • Week Seven at Miami Dolphins: four targets/three catches for 72 yards.
  • Week Eight at New Orleans Saints: one target/zero catches.
  • Week Nine versus Kansas City Chiefs: 12 targets/eight catches for 72 yards (Dwayne Bowe 11 targets/seven catches for 67 yards).
  • Week 10 at Pittsburgh Steelers: 11 targets/seven catches for 95 yards and a TD (Antonio Brown six targets/three catches for 58 yards).
  • Week 11 versus New York Jets: six targets/two catches for 45 yards.
  • Week 13 versus Atlanta Falcons: 12 targets/seven catches for 93 yards (Roddy White five targets/four catches for 48 yards).

Gilmore has no interceptions and three pass breakups. He has made 21 tackles.

NFL Sunday Outtakes: Rules taking club foot out of kicker's bag

By Tim Graham

Where have all the kick returns gone?

They've become mostly immaterial.

Only three kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns this year. The NFL is on pace for four kickoff TDs by season's end, fewest since 1993.

The Buffalo Bills are among three teams on track to challenge the 1944 New York Giants for fewest kickoff returns. Those Giants made 17 returns in a 10-game season.

For this week's NFL Sunday feature in The Buffalo News, I dialed up legends Brian Mitchell, Mel Gray and Abe Woodson -- 29,802 kickoff return yards, 8,708 punt return yards and 29 return touchdowns among them -- for their perspectives on a part of the game that's not as thrilling as it used to be.

Bills coach Doug Marrone and returners Leodis McKelvin and Marquise Goodwin also shared their thoughts about a supposed team strength that has been nonexistent.

Here's another perspective. Kickers are being impacted, too.

"The reason they're getting fazed out is a safety issue," Bills kicker Dan Carpenter said. "They're trying to eliminate or cut down on the high-end collisions."

With concussions a hot-button issue, the NFL has made it more difficult for return men to make plays. Blocking wedges larger than two players were eliminated in 2009. The kickoff spot was moved from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line in 2011.

Kickers are driving the ball. Return men are more reluctant to bring out kicks that fall deep in the end zone.

Touchbacks occur on 53 percent of kickoffs now, up from 16.4 percent in 2010. They happened about 8 or 9 percent of the time from 2000 through 2005.

The NFL has considered eliminating kickoffs completely.

"It's tough when you only do certain things in your job title," Carpenter said. "The thought that one of those things might be taken away ... Obviously, the game would change. Our position and what teams are looking for in a kicker would change."

Carpenter probably would benefit if kickoffs vanished. He's an accurate field-goal kicker but isn't consistent at deep kickoffs.

He has made 92 percent of his field goals this year and three of his four tries from 50 yards or longer. His touchback percentage is 10 points below the league average.

"Kickers probably could hang around longer," Carpenter said. "There are only a couple reasons teams cut kickers. Either you miss too many field goals or you can't kick the ball as far as you once used to."

And if kickoffs were phased out?

"Guys who kick the ball will be accurate for field goals and not worry about kicking off," Carpenter said. "You won't have to work on that anymore. You won't get those young guys who come out and just crush the ball because it won't be as relevant.

"It will come down more to fundamentals than strength. It's like with golf. If every hole was less than 300 yards, nobody would own a driver. You'd throw them away. There's no point in having those clubs."

Leodis McKelvin looking forward to seeing old friend David Nelson

By Jay Skurski

A big smile crossed Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin's face today when asked whether he was excited to see former teammate David Nelson on Sunday.

"Most definitely. You know, it's always good to see David," McKelvin said of Nelson, who spent his first three seasons with the Bills as an undrafted free agent out of Florida. "Just to go against him in a real-live situation instead of at practice, it's going to be very interesting to see what he comes out with."

Nelson signed with the Jets on Oct. 2. In five games with the team, he's caught 16 passes for 199 yards.

"He's been doing a good job. He's hungry. He’s trying to go out there and make plays so he can solidify himself a spot on the roster," McKelvin said. "He's going to be ready to play. You'll have to be on your toes if your lined up against him."

McKelvin also expects it to be pretty noisy on the field.

"We'll get to rapping back and forth, chomping at each other," he said. "I'm looking forward to going at him in a real game."

Nelson made it clear earlier this week that he's got Sunday's game circled on his calendar.

"Anybody who tells you when they play an old team or a team that cut them or something like that, that it's just another game, is lying to you," Nelson said. "This isn't just another game for me, it's going to be personal and I think you'll see that on Sunday." 

Bills secondary notably stronger for Jets rematch

By Tim Graham

The last time he played the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith had a pleasant afternoon.

Although Smith threw a pair of interceptions, he passed for 331 yards (merely 39 yards short of the series record despite just 16 completions) and two touchdowns. Smith ran for a touchdown, too. The Bills couldn't sack him.

The Bills should look different to Smith on Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The Bills were missing two vital members of their secondary in Week Three. They'll have cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd for the rematch.

"Byrd is a ball-hawking safety, Pro Bowl-type safety," Smith said Wednesday. "They play a ton of man. So having Gilmore back, their starting corner, obviously makes them a better defense.

"And they've been pretty stout up front. So just having a chance to have those guys back gives them, I think, better guys in that secondary, which really helps their defense out because that's the style that they play."

Buffalo starting cornerbacks at the Meadowlands were Leodis McKelvin and Justin Rogers. McKelvin hurt his hamstring on the opening drive. That forced starting safety Aaron Williams to switch to cornerback.

"So they've got three guys that are different than what we faced the last game," Jets coach Rex Ryan said.

Byrd grabbed his first interception of the season -- and the Bills' first takeaway in three games -- Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Gilmore has been extraordinarily busy the past two weeks.

ProFootballFocus.com data shows the Kansas City Chiefs targeted him 12 times and the Steelers targeted him 11 times. They completed 65.1 percent of their passes for 167 yards (59 after the catch) and a touchdown and a 101.2 passer rating.

Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley is expected to be out with a bum elbow, but Santonio Holmes (five catches for 154 yards and a touchdown in Week Three) practiced fully Wednesday and should play after missing five games with a hamstring injury.

Tight end Kellen Winslow (no catches in Week Three) is returning from a four-game performance-enhancing-drug suspension. Tight end Zach Sudfeld has been added since the last meeting and has four catches for 56 yards the past two weeks.

"They're getting guys back on their defense with Byrd and Gilmore," Smith said. "So it's definitely going to be another challenge for us, but we can create matchups with having Kellen and Jeff [Cumberland] and even Zach and then Tone, Stephen [Hill], all the guys that we are accustomed to having.

"They can make plays for us and it just gives us a better chance, I think."

'Field position' a flimsy reason for Doug Marrone's decision to punt

By Jay Skurski

Priority No. 1 for every Buffalo Bills head coach should be avoiding comparisons to Gregg Williams.

But it was easy to make one Sunday with Doug Marrone.

Trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers, 17-3, at the start of the fourth quarter, Marrone elected to punt on fourth and 5 from the Steelers' 36-yard line.

The decision hearkened back to 2002,  when Williams infamously punting from the New England Patriots' 32-yard line on a fourth-and-2 play in the third quarter of a game the Bills were trailing by 10 points. 

Here was the explanation offered by Marrone for Sunday's call after the game:

"I still think we’re going to get enough possessions trying to play the field position. We weren't able to make big plays, so I was trying to play the field position where we could get good field position and pin them back. I thought the defense was doing well for the most part, except for we gave up a couple plays. Man coverage, we lost a guy. They beat us in man-to-man a couple times. The reverse was a play, we missed that. That's what I was thinking at that time."

The problem with playing field position at that time is that the Bills had done absolutely nothing with it until that point. Buffalo's first three possessions began on the Pittsburgh 29-yard line, the Pittsburgh 44 and the Buffalo 44. The Bills got a field goal on those three drives combined, going three and out twice.

The Bills started at their own 48-yard line on the drive in which Marrone decided to punt. They gained 16 yards on five plays before failing to convert a third and 5. Brian Moorman punted 25 yards to the Pittsburgh 11, where Antonio Brown made a fair catch.

The decision to punt officially backfired when the Steelers converted a third-and-4 play to get the ball out to their 26-yard line. Pittsburgh then gained one more first down before eventually being forced to punt, but by that time the Steelers had flipped the field -- and ran 4:15 off the clock. Mat McBriar's 44-yard punt was returned for a loss of 1 yard by the Bills' Leodis McKelvin, meaning the Bills took over at their 22-yard line with 9:47 to play. EJ Manuel threw an interception on the next play.

First-quarter analysis: Marquise Goodwin hits 'turbo boost'

By Jay Skurski

There's a reason they call Marquise Goodwin "Flash."

The Buffalo Bills' rookie receiver showed why during the first quarter today against the Kansas City Chiefs. Goodwin caught a perfectly thrown ball from rookie undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel, who's making his first career start, for a 59-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Goodwin beat press coverage on the play, then simply caught up to the ball that looked like it might have been overthrown when Tuel let it go. It's Goodwin's second touchdown of 40 or more yards this season.

Raise your hand if you saw this coming: Tuel has started the game 5 of 7 for 112 yards and a touchdown. One of the incomplete passes was a drop by tight end Scott Chandler. 

Continue reading "First-quarter analysis: Marquise Goodwin hits 'turbo boost'" »

First-quarter analysis: Robey plays bigger than his size

By Jay Skurski

Cornerback Nickell Robey has been a heck of a find for the Buffalo Bills this season.

An undrafted rookie free agent out of Southern California, Robey made the biggest play of his young professional career today in the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at SunLife Stadium.

Robey perfectly read Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and stepped in front of receiver Brandon Gibson for his first career interception, which he took 19 yards for a touchdown.

Robey is undersized at 5-foot-8, 165 pounds but plays bigger than his size. He’s been fearless as the nickel cornerback, and stepped right into the lineup in Week One. Robey’s play has helped the Bills overcome the loss of Ron Brooks, who was expected to serve as the third corner coming out of training camp.

Continue reading "First-quarter analysis: Robey plays bigger than his size" »

First-quarter analysis: A dream start

By Jay Skurski

The Buffalo Bills couldn’t have scripted a better start to tonight’s game against the Cleveland Browns.

The Bills forced a three and out on their first defensive series, got a 25-yard punt return from Jim Leonhard deep into Cleveland territory, then scored a touchdown on their third offensive play – a 1-yard rush by running back Fred Jackson. Buffalo got the ball on the Browns’ 1-yard line after a bit of trickery on their second play. Receiver T.J. Graham threw a deep pass intended for Stevie Johnson in the end zone on a reverse. Johnson was interfered with on the play by the Browns’ top cornerback, Joe Haden, a 29-yard penalty.

On the next play, Jackson dove in for a touchdown just 1:39 into the game.

Hoyer goes down: Cleveland starting quarterback Brian Hoyer was hurt after running just seven plays. Hoyer scrambled for 11 yards on a second-down play on Cleveland’s second possession. At the end of the run, he slid late and was tackled by Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso. Hoyer has a knee injury, and his return is questionable.

Leodis, C.J. active, but don’t start: Cornerback Leodis McKelvin and running back C.J. Spiller both are dressed for the Bills tonight, but neither started. McKelvin did, however, come in for a third-down play on the Bills’ first possession, and has been on the field extensively since. Spiller, however, has been seen for just one play, and does not have any rushes. He appears to be an emergency option for the Bills behind Fred Jackson and Tashard Choice.

Carpenter good from deep: Bills kicker Dan Carpenter is making things interesting. He drilled a 52-yard field goal to give Buffalo a 10-0 lead. After missing his first field goal of the season, he’s made 11 straight. With rookie Dustin Hopkins yet to prove himself because of a groin injury that has kept him out the first five weeks, Carpenter is making a push to at least be considered for the job full time.

Doug Marrone on C.J. Spiller: We think he'll be out there

By Tim Graham

CLEVELAND -- The Buffalo Bills apparently expect C.J. Spiller to play tonight against the Cleveland Browns.

The team tweeted a quote from coach Doug Marrone apparently from an interview with NFL Network reporter Stacey Dales.

"I think we feel good, think he'll be out there," the Bills tweeted along with a photo of Marrone speaking to Dales.

The Bills peeled back a corner of the tarp at FirstEnergy Stadium so safety Jairus Byrd (feet) and cornerback Leodis McKelvin (hamstring) could test their injuries before the game.

As of this posting, there has been no indication from the team that either will or won't play.

Theoretical injury report: Spiller sidelined, Jackson limited

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills didn't practice today, but the NFL mandates Monday injury reports for teams playing Thursday night and asks those teams to guesstimate what would've happened.

So here's a theoretical injury report of who would've been held out or limited had practice taken place today:

Would not have practiced

  • Running back C.J. Spiller (ankle)
  • Cornerback Ron Brooks (foot)
  • Cornerback Stephon Gilmore (wrist)

Would've been limited in practice

  • Running back Fred Jackson (knee)
  • Wide receiver Steve Johnson (hamstring)
  • Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (hand)
  • Guard Kraig Urbik (knee)
  • Cornerback Leodis McKelvin (hamstring)
  • Cornerback Aaron Williams (back)
  • Safety Jairus Byrd (foot)
  • Kicker Dustin Hopkins (groin)
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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | tgraham@buffnews.com


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | mgaughan@buffnews.com


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@buffnews.com

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