> 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.
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.
> 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.
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 41?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
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. --P.K.
WITH 2006 STATISTICS
COACH DICK JAURON (43-58 in NFL), second season with Bills