When Buffalo needed him most, Leodis McKelvin had the game of his life.
The Bills’ ultra-talented, ultra-fast rookie kick returner started Sunday due to a raid of injuries. Jabari Greer, Ashton Youboty and Donte Whitner were all wiped out of the Bills lineup.
McKelvin couldn’t merely provide cheap thrills on kick returns. Kansas City’s offense entered Sunday’s game flying high. Buffalo’s secondary entered the game at half strength. Upset Alert was on.
McKelvin needed to be a lockdown cornerback. He was much, much more.
The 11th overall pick in the 2008 Draft had the best game of his short pro life in place of Greer, who was sidelined with a knee sprain. In Buffalo’s 54-31 blowout win, McKelvin picked off two passes – one of which he returned 64 yards for a touchdown. He also returned a kick 46 yards to set up a touchdown, increasing his year average to a league-high 29.2 yards per return. The Hester Effect kicked in too. The Chiefs chose to kick short throughout the game to avoid McKelvin. As a result, the Bills’ average starting field position was the 41-yard line.
"Huge plays he made in the game," head coach Dick Jauron said of McKelvin after the game. "We're obviously thrilled with the way he played today and the way he's come along."
McKelvin became the first Bills rookie since Brandon Spoon in 2001 to return an interception for a touchdown.
The key takeaway occurred at a critical juncture in the game. In the second quarter, Kansas City led 14-13 and was in Buffalo territory. On a first-down pass, McKelvin stepped in front of Mark Bradley to swipe the ball away and was off to the races. Tyler Thigpen and Larry Johnson each had favorable angles at catching McKelvin, but the rookie’s 4.38-speed was too much.
Finally, the speed McKelvin has exuded in the return game applied to the defense. Finally, the Bills got what they bargained for in April’s draft. Jauron has had multiple opportunities to stick McKelvin into prominent roles on Buffalo’s defense and balked each time.
In the summer he opted for veteran Jabari Greer to start opposite Terrence McGee. With Youboty earning the nickel job, McKelvin’s defensive snaps were rare. Jauron could have stuck McKelvin in place of a hobbled McGee at Miami in Game Seven, but didn’t (even as Ted Ginn Jr. abused McGee all day). When Youboty suffered a season-ending foot injury, the Bills still restrained from putting McKelvin on the field – inserting the safety Whitner in at the nickel spot.
The rookie didn’t sulk through the snubs.
“I knew that I had my turn,” McKelvin said. “I was just learning from them…I was just looking up to them as my brother and I just worked very hard. I was expecting myself to come in and compete for a starting job. Whenever they call me in, I’m going to come in and do my job.”
K.C. came into Sunday’s affair on fire offensively. Only Arizona’s Kurt Warner threw as many touchdowns as Thigpen in the previous five games. He had found a rhythm with Dwayne Bowe and Tony Gonzalez – each had 55 receptions coming into the game. A game that was supposed to serve as Ibuprofen for the reeling Bills could have blown up in their face. Kansas City (1-10) was much better than its record indicated.
McKelvin ensured that there were no surprises. His impact lingered all game.
One week after returning a kick for a touchdown against Cleveland, McKelvin was Barry Bonds at the plate. KC pitched around him all game, squibbing the ball short repeatedly.
“Leodis has really given us outstanding field position, which translates into points,” Jauron said. “He showed his running skills that we’re all aware of. We’re obviously thrilled with the way he’s played and the way he’s come along.”
While McKelvin’s pick-six gave Buffalo the lead, his second pick helped the Bills keep it. With only 1:30 left in the first half, McKelvin picked off Thigpen to give Buffalo a last-gasp drive. The possession ended with a bold 15-yard touchdown run by Trent Edwards, and suddenly a one-score game was 30-17, Bills.
Jauron assured that Greer would re-assume his starting spot when he returned, but still it’ll be hard to keep McKelvin off the field. McKelvin is Bobby Boucher, The Waterboy. An talent-rich, instant threat on every, single play. Sunday proved his explosiveness isn’t constrained to special teams.