One of the highlights of PFF's visit to Buffalo Bills training camp in Pittsford, N.Y. camp, was getting to see one of the league’s best cornerback duos up close and personal, with Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby both on the field practicing.
Watching the DBs go through one-on-one drills with receivers, you can immediately see the influence of the Ryan brothers in the technique and aggressive nature of their coverage. This is a defense that is going to lean on press-man, physical coverage, and these drills featured way more contact than we have seen from any other camp so far on tour when it comes to route-running and coverage battles.
“That’s what we like to do,” Gilmore said. “That’s the way I know I like to do it—be on an island, put my hands on guys, and make plays.”
That aggressive style of press-man coverage was a big reason behind the immediate success of Darby as a rookie last year, and the second-year player is the perfect foil for Gilmore in this secondary.
“[Ronald Darby] had a great year. He’s a fast guy, eager to learn, and obviously you can’t teach speed,” Gilmore said.
Darby’s play was made all the more impressive because in this aggressive defense, cornerbacks are thrown out there and made to sink or swim in man coverage. Last season, Darby was targeted 105 times, fifth-most in the NFL, and was one of only eight cornerbacks to see the ball come his way more than 100 times.
“In our defense, you’ll get targeted” he said. “Because we show that we’re on an island, and when QBs see that we’re on an island, they’re going to come at us. It's not like other defenses where you’ve got a safety over the top and you’re not going to get as many targets.”
Gilmore himself saw 92 targets last season, 17th in the league among cornerbacks, so any success in this defense at corner is going to be earned and tested.
Because of that, both Bills CBs need to be constantly improving. Each was among the last players to leave the practice field on Monday, getting in extra work after the session was over while many teammates were filtering back inside.
Rather than getting caught up in who tracks receivers and whether players will man up with the biggest threat every play, Gilmore just focuses on technique, and who’s playing with the best fundamentals play after play.
“Obviously [tracking receivers] is a harder task to do, but I mean, when you talk about the best corners, I don’t really look at that. I look at technique, who’s on an island. Everybody’s different; some people’s jobs are harder. I look at guys that do it the right way, that have good technique, and don’t rely on the system.
I think [Cardinals CB] Patrick Peterson played at a high level last year. Technique-wise he looked good, [Broncos CB]. Chris Harris looked good, and [Aqib] Talib. Those are the guys that you can really look at technique on, besides myself and Darby—we try to play with good technique.”
Gilmore doesn’t study other corners directly on tape, but rather picks up on technique when he watches the guys he is going to go up against, the receivers.
“I see them when I’m studying. I see what they’re doing good and try to put a little of it in my game. I don’t really study a certain guy, but I see what’s good on the film.”
As for the receivers in Buffalo, the team has an emerging star in Sammy Watkins, but the door is open for others to step up and make a name for themselves—and make an impact on this team in 2016. Dezmin Lewis played just nine snaps last season, but has the kind of athletic talent to make an impact and earn a role this season. Gilmore was high on the improvement he has shown so far.
“[Lewis] has looked good. I went against him every day. He was on the practice squad last year, and he looks 10 times better. He looks like he took the offseason to work on his game. His release is better, he’s a big target, and he’s getting better and better every day.”
The other player that stood out during Monday’s practice was Walter Powell, who is already on his fourth team in the NFL since being drafted in the sixth round of the draft back in 2014. It’s his second stint with the Bills, but in Monday’s practice, at least, he was the stand-out performer, making several impressive catches in one-on-one drills and team sessions.
Gilmore knows all about Powell’s speed, at least.
“He’s a speedy guy, he’s going to try and get down the field. You’ve got to know who you're going against and play off of that, because depending on the guy, that’s the kind of routes they’re going to run. He’s a good receiver, like I said; you’ve got to respect his speed. “
Whether either of these young receivers can bring their play together consistently over this training camp and earn a role within this offense remains to be seen, but at least in Stephon Gilmore they are going to see one of the game’s better cornerbacks every time they come out to practice.