| Lynch can pile up yards, but most wins will come through the D and special teams.
|Rick Stewart/Getty Images|
14 at Jacksonville
28 at St. Louis
5 at Arizona
19 SAN DIEGO
26 at Miami
2 N.Y. JETS
9 at New England
17 CLEVELAND (M)
23 at Kansas City
30 SAN FRANCISCO
14 at N.Y. Jets
21 at Denver
28 NEW ENGLAND
Kawika Mitchell, Linebacker: The Bills' defense is built on emotion, and Mitchell, a big free-agent pickup, fits in perfectly. Whipping, driving, barking his calls, he was at the heart of a 2007 Giants defense that got stronger as the weather got colder. "We never felt there was any give in us," he says of his former team. His new one expects the same.
They shored up the defense through free agency, but where were the improvements on the other side of the ball?
Guaranteed to happen in training camp: wideout pulls a muscle, superstar
wants to renegotiate. Generally these things get worked out, especially the
holdouts. "The summer of discontent," Al Davis calls it. But there comes a time
when a contract stalemate becomes serious, and that's what the Bills went
through this summer. Their best player, 26-year-old Jason Peters, the Pro Bowl
left tackle, not only wanted his deal reworked but also went incommunicado. The
Bills weren't negotiating until he returned to camp, and they were using
Langston Walker, the right tackle, to fill Peters's spot on the left.
The new offensive coordinator is Turk Schonert. That means a new system and
new offensive line calls. That's not impossible for Peters to pick up on short
notice, but not ideal, either. The new general manager is Russ Brandon, a decent
person who had to confront one of the more merciless agents, Eugene Parker, the
guy calling the shots for the Peters camp. New G.M., huh? Let's see how tough
"If only I'd hear from Jason, but there hasn't been a word," Brandon said
early in camp. Ah, but that's the strategy. The big stonewall. Peters, a
converted tight end, was in the third year of a five-year contract that would
pay him $3.25 million this season. He's far outperformed those numbers. And
while a new deal was likely to be worked out at some point, his long absence has
made a fragile Buffalo operation even shakier.
An All-Pro left tackle can solve a lot of problems. It means you can put a
monster on the right side of the line and just ask that guy to knock people off
the ball. Walker, 6' 8" and 366 pounds, fills that role, and then some, but
the experiment on the left just wasn't working. Walker is a mauler. Peters,
6' 4" and 340, is gifted and agile, a natural left tackle. The rest of the
line is decent. It could be a force, eventually -- but only with Peters anchoring
the left side.
Still, the Bills' offense isn't designed to run up big scores. Fifth-year
wideout Lee Evans is a flashy long-ball threat. Marshawn Lynch was one of the
league's more productive runners as a rookie last season, with 1,115 rushing
yards. But third-year quarterback Trent Edwards, who started nine games in 2007,
is a careful guy who doesn't want mistakes to mess up his first full season as
the No. 1. If Buffalo's going to win, it will be with a spirited defense and
with special teams.
No one gave the Bills much thought last year. They got off to a slow start,
but then their defense kicked in. They won six of eight, holding opponents to
less than 300 yards in five of those victories, and at 7-6 they were poised to
make a run at the playoffs. Three straight losses ended that dream.
Oddly enough, the bulk of their free-agent pickups were on defense -- tackles
Marcus Stroud of the Jaguars and Spencer Johnson of the Vikings, and linebacker
Kawika Mitchell from the Giants' Super Bowl unit.
Buffalo's 2008 first-round draft choice, Leodis McKelvin out of Troy, is a
cornerback with great skill as a return man. He opened everyone's eyes in the
second exhibition game, running a kick back 95 yards for a touchdown against the
Steelers. Special teams coach Bobby April, who had the league's top punt
returner last year in Roscoe Parrish and a solid kick returner in Terrence
McGee, believes you can never have enough of them. "Terrence is a regular
cornerback," April says. "He kills himself running back kicks. Having McKelvin
is an unbelievable luxury."
The formula could work for coach Dick Jauron, himself an old cornerback. It's
an old-fashioned way of winning: Control things with the defense and the return
game, then top it off with just enough offense. But there must be stability, all
the pieces in place, all players working at the top of their game. And that
includes one of the most treasured gifts an NFL team can have -- a really talented
left tackle. -- Paul Zimmerman