Posluszny (left) reminds Levy of Conlan, his Super Bowl super 'backer.
at New England
at N.Y. Jets
The King 500
39Jason Peters, Left tackle
An undrafted '04 free agent, Peters was languishing as a backup tight end until filling in for injured right tackle Mike Williams in '05. He hasn't been out of the lineup since, sliding to the left last year and quickly becoming dominant at the position. "He's the best big man I've seen come into the league in the last 20 years," says line coach Jim McNally. "Some of the good pass rushers, he just obliterates."
They've brought in rookies and veterans to fortify the right spots, but it likely won't be enough in a talent-heavy division
The NFL mantra, particularly for Northern teams that regularly have to cope
with bad weather late in the year, is: You've got to be able to run the ball,
and you've got to stop the run. Last year the Bills were lousy at both,
averaging 3.7 yards per carry and allowing 4.7. To ramp up the running game they
committed $93 million in the off-season to two free-agent linemen and a rookie
back. The new left guard, former Redskin Derrick Dockery (seven years,
$49 million), teams with rising-star left tackle Jason Peters to strengthen
that side of the line, while athletic right tackle Langston Walker, late of the
Raiders (five years, $25 million), should stabilize the strong side.
Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, a Mike Martz disciple, will try to
turn strong, shifty first-round pick Marshawn Lynch out of Cal (six years,
$18.9 million) into Marshall Faulk North, and a 1,500-yard
rushing-receiving season for Lynch is a realistic goal. On defense Paul
Posluszny, one of the best in a long line of Penn State linebackers, was taken
in the second round to man the middle; he and 2006 first-round defensive tackle
John McCargo (who missed most of last season with a broken bone in his left
foot), will improve Buffalo's efforts against the run.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
The Bills won't beat New England out of the top spot in the AFC East,
but the offensive overhaul and victories last December over the Jets and the
Dolphins by a combined 52-13 are signs that a wild card is possible. That's
saying something, because aside from the expansion Texans, Buffalo is the only
AFC team that has not made the playoffs in the 21st century. The Bills, 46 games
over .500 in the '90s, are 20 games under in this decade.
Buffalo likely has done enough on offense to play with the big boys,
particularly if J.P. Losman continues his competent play at quarterback. While
the Bills were going 5-2 under Losman's direction in a late-season stretch, the
coaches' faith in their third-year signal-caller strengthened as he completed
65% of his passes and threw 11 touchdowns against four interceptions. "He has
really improved his fundamentals and his decision-making," Fairchild says.
"We're not going to be the Colts, and maybe he's not going to be Peyton Manning,
but I'm very comfortable with him going to the line and getting us out of a bad
play and into a good one."
It's defense that will make or break the Bills' postseason bid, and the case
for improvement in that unit is harder to make. Buffalo parted with three top
players -- linebackers London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes and cornerback Nate
Clements; replacing them are undistinguished linebacker Angelo Crowell,
journeyman corner Jason Webster and the rookie Posluszny. Defensive coordinator
Perry Fewell thinks Posluszny has the potential to be the face of the franchise,
but there's a lot of pressure on the broad shoulders of the 239-pound rookie.
Most pro scouts wonder if Posluszny, who played in a brace last year at Penn
State to protect an injured right knee, has the speed to be a
sideline-to-sideline playmaker in the pros. The Bills found Posluszny to be
fully recovered, and in camp the former Nittany Lion showed good range. "This
defense is ideal, because they tell me to play 4 1/2 yards off the ball and
get to the football," Posluszny says. "That's what I do best. I'm a pretty
instinctive player. I think I can be the kind of guy to get double digits in
tackles, make big plays and help cause turnovers." He'll need to do all of that
for Buffalo to be better than .500.
Run defense was the team's biggest concern in the off-season. At the league
meetings last March, owner Ralph Wilson, vice president Jim Overdorf, general
manager Marv Levy and coach Dick Jauron huddled at a table, when Wilson said, "I
want to know what we're going to do about stopping the run." His defense had
been steamrolled for 140.9 rushing yards per game (28th in the league). Two days
later Buffalo dealt Spikes to the Eagles for defensive tackle Darwin Walker. But
Walker demanded a new contract and refused to report; the Bills traded him to
Chicago on July 29 for a conditional '08 fifth-round pick. Now they'll have to
rely on McCargo in that spot and hope Posluszny becomes the tackling machine
that Fletcher was.
When Levy watched tape of Posluszny before the draft, he kept seeing Shane
Conlan, the run-stuffing inside linebacker on Levy's Super Bowl teams of the
'90s. The two players have much in common: Each wore number 31 at Penn State
(Posluszny in homage to Conlan), each was drafted by Levy to be the defensive
linchpin of the Bills, and in the off-season they worked out at the same gym in
Pittsburgh. (Conlan lives there, and Posluszny was born in nearby Butler.) Now
if Levy could just find players who reminded him of Cornelius Bennett, Bruce
Smith and Darryl Talley, Buffalo would be a playoff lock. -- Peter King