| 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, superstarwants to renegotiate. Generally these things get worked out, especially theholdouts. "The summer of discontent," Al Davis calls it. But there comes a timewhen a contract stalemate becomes serious, and that's what the Bills wentthrough this summer. Their best player, 26-year-old Jason Peters, the Pro Bowlleft tackle, not only wanted his deal reworked but also went incommunicado. TheBills weren't negotiating until he returned to camp, and they were usingLangston Walker, the right tackle, to fill Peters's spot on the left.
The new offensive coordinator is Turk Schonert. That means a new system andnew offensive line calls. That's not impossible for Peters to pick up on shortnotice, but not ideal, either. The new general manager is Russ Brandon, a decentperson who had to confront one of the more merciless agents, Eugene Parker, theguy calling the shots for the Peters camp. New G.M., huh? Let's see how toughyou are.
"If only I'd hear from Jason, but there hasn't been a word," Brandon saidearly in camp. Ah, but that's the strategy. The big stonewall. Peters, aconverted tight end, was in the third year of a five-year contract that wouldpay him $3.25 million this season. He's far outperformed those numbers. Andwhile a new deal was likely to be worked out at some point, his long absence hasmade a fragile Buffalo operation even shakier.
An All-Pro left tackle can solve a lot of problems. It means you can put amonster on the right side of the line and just ask that guy to knock people offthe ball. Walker, 6' 8" and 366 pounds, fills that role, and then some, butthe 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 theline is decent. It could be a force, eventually -- but only with Peters anchoringthe left side.
Still, the Bills' offense isn't designed to run up big scores. Fifth-yearwideout Lee Evans is a flashy long-ball threat. Marshawn Lynch was one of theleague's more productive runners as a rookie last season, with 1,115 rushingyards. 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 asthe No. 1. If Buffalo's going to win, it will be with a spirited defense andwith 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 toless than 300 yards in five of those victories, and at 7-6 they were poised tomake a run at the playoffs. Three straight losses ended that dream.
Oddly enough, the bulk of their free-agent pickups were on defense -- tacklesMarcus Stroud of the Jaguars and Spencer Johnson of the Vikings, and linebackerKawika Mitchell from the Giants' Super Bowl unit.
Buffalo's 2008 first-round draft choice, Leodis McKelvin out of Troy, is acornerback with great skill as a return man. He opened everyone's eyes in thesecond exhibition game, running a kick back 95 yards for a touchdown against theSteelers. Special teams coach Bobby April, who had the league's top puntreturner last year in Roscoe Parrish and a solid kick returner in TerrenceMcGee, believes you can never have enough of them. "Terrence is a regularcornerback," April says. "He kills himself running back kicks. Having McKelvinis an unbelievable luxury."
The formula could work for coach Dick Jauron, himself an old cornerback. It'san old-fashioned way of winning: Control things with the defense and the returngame, then top it off with just enough offense. But there must be stability, allthe pieces in place, all players working at the top of their game. And thatincludes one of the most treasured gifts an NFL team can have -- a really talentedleft tackle. -- Paul Zimmerman