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Buffalo Bills Overcome Injuries in Secondary to Defeat Carolina Panthers

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COMMENTARY | Entering the Week 2 game against the Carolina Panthers, one would not be faulted for assuming that the Buffalo Bills' defense would be at a disadvantage.

Not only was Panthers head coach Ron Rivera hinting that a more aggressive offensive approach would be employed, but the Bills' secondary also came into the game with its two most important players on the sideline with injuries.

Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo's 2012 first-round draft pick, came into training camp as the team's presumptive No. 1 cornerback. He showed flashes of brilliance last season as a rookie starter and looked primed to take the next step to becoming one of the game's elite shutdown corners. Those plans came to a halt in the Bills' third preseason game against the Washington Redskins when Gilmore injured his wrist. After the injury, it was announced that Gilmore would miss 5-6 games.

At the same time, the Bills continue to be without Jairus Byrd, one of the top safeties in all of football. After missing the vast majority of training camp and the preseason holding out over a contract dispute, Byrd was injured trying to get ready for the season and is currently inactive while suffering from plantar fasciitis in both feet.

For the second straight week, the Bills were to be without Gilmore and Byrd. Understandably, people questioned whether the Bills' secondary would be able to shut down Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and the rest of their receiving corps. The worries did not come to fruition, however, and the Bills' defense held its own in a 24-23 victory.

Smith almost certainly would have been covered by Gilmore had he been on the field. Without Gilmore, the task fell to Bills second cornerback Leodis McKelvin, another former first-round pick who has struggled to become the front-line cornerback the Bills have hoped for.

McKelvin more than held his own against Smith, keeping him to just 52 yards on five catches. Smith was generally frustrated throughout the game by McKelvin, and he was only able to convert receptions on five of his 11 targets. Most important, McKelvin did not give up anything down the field, as Smith's longest reception was for 13 yards.

Overall, that makes two stellar performances for McKelvin in two weeks of the regular season filling in as the team's acting No. 1 cornerback. If anything, Gilmore's injury may end up being a blessing in disguise for the Bills. When he comes back, they will have two cornerbacks that have the confidence to shut down any receivers in the league and the ability to match.

At the same time, the Bills were able to overcome Byrd's absence without much of an issue. The team was only beat by Newton deep down the field one time, on a 40-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. To be sure, cornerback Justin Rogers and safety Aaron Williams were beat pretty badly on the play. If Byrd was there in Williams' place (and, for that matter, if Gilmore shifted McKelvin over to that side of the field) that play probably would have been better defended. However, only giving up one big play to the big-armed Cam Newton has to be considered a success when the two injuries are factored in.

Whether the Bills can continue their defensive success without Gilmore and Byrd in the lineup remains to be seen. Byrd is seemingly considered week-to-week with the sore feet, while Gilmore will still miss at least three more games.

Luckily for Buffalo, next week's opponent, the New York Jets, is not known for its passing game. If Buffalo's secondary can continue to survive until these two players get back, it will be a huge boon for its momentum as a defense going forward. And if Week 2 is any indication, there is reason to be optimistic in Buffalo that the defense can do just that.

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Del Pearson is a lifelong Upstate New York resident and follower of the Buffalo Bills. He has been attending games since childhood and more recently writing about the team as a Yahoo Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DelPearson44.

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