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4 Buffalo Bills An offense built around Drew Bledsoe should shine, but the defense still needs buffing

Sept. 02, 2002
Sept. 02, 2002

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Sept. 2, 2002

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4 Buffalo Bills An offense built around Drew Bledsoe should shine, but the defense still needs buffing

Peerless Price runs a deep corner route toward the end zone. Two
defenders have the coverage. Drew Bledsoe's throw is high and
arcing, a 40-yard touch pass with little margin for error. Price
leaps and pulls the ball in, and there's an eruption from the
stands. The fans are slapping high fives, waving their fists and
yelling, "Drew! Drewww!"

This is an article from the Sept. 2, 2002 issue

This is the pretty part of the operation, the thing that brings
them out on a 90[degree] afternoon in August. When Bledsoe, who
was acquired from the Patriots in April for a 2003 first-round
choice, made his first visit to Buffalo, a band played his
Washington State fight song. A full-length picture of him adorns
the cover of the media guide. Singer Tom Sartori, a Buffalo
resident, even wrote a song about Bledsoe, to the tune of John
Mellencamp's Jack and Diane.

"My friend was watching the draft when the trade was announced,"
says Eric Moulds, one of the league's premier long-ball wideouts.
"I was getting food from the kitchen. All of a sudden he started
yelling, 'We got Bledsoe! We got Bledsoe!' My heart jumped. A
big, strong quarterback who likes to go downfield. Right then I
knew that the sky's the limit. I can have the best year I've ever
had."

The Bills have built an offense around Bledsoe. With the fourth
pick in the draft they selected Mike Williams, a 6'6", 370-pound
tackle from Texas with feet like a dancer's. In the second round
they picked LSU's Josh Reed, a wideout who has been one of the
stars of camp. Free agency brought them former Broncos tackle
Trey Teague, who will switch to center. In fact, the line looks
strong, featuring five-time Pro Bowler Ruben Brown at left guard.

On one side of the ball there are smiles all around as the Bills
prepare to improve on a 3-13 season. But there's another side to
the picture, and that could determine how much progress this team
makes. In a far corner of the practice field, feisty 64-year-old
John Levra, the defensive line coach, drills his gang of
no-names. "I've been in football for 44 years, and this might be
my biggest challenge," he says. "I'm tired of reading how this
unit is the weak link of the club. It's time to do something
about it."

One name you might recognize is that of Pat Williams, the
315-pound sixth-year tackle. Two years ago he played so well that
the team chose not to re-sign Ted Washington. Last year Williams
had one stretch in which, as Levra says, "he was just killing
people." But late in the season he suffered a broken left fibula
that sidelined him for three games.

Going into camp, Williams was surrounded by rookies and young
veterans. So in mid-August, Buffalo signed experienced ends Chidi
Ahanotu and Shawn Price. "I know what's expected of me," Williams
says. "Number 1, have a big year. Number 2, help the young guys."

The only other sure starter on the line is end Aaron Schobel, who
led the team with 6 1/2 sacks last year. No one knows who will be
the outside pass rushers when the Bills go into their nickel.
Getting to the quarterback was a problem last year (Buffalo was
21st in the NFL, with 34 sacks), as was stopping the run (seven
ballcarriers had 100-yard games). After five years among the
league's top 10 defenses, the Bills sank to 21st. They addressed
a need by bringing in two quality free-agent linebackers, London
Fletcher from the Rams and Eddie Robinson from the Titans.
"Sometimes we'll have to do it by scheme," Levra says, "sometimes
by hard work and hustle and speed. At least all these guys can
run."

Before the season starts, there could be more pickups along the
D-line, but the Bills' biggest problem was cured when they got
Bledsoe. "When I was in New England," he says, "a Patriots-Bills
game was always a dogfight. Through the years I've had a
tremendous amount of respect for this organization. Now I'm part
of it. I have a chance to be a leader. I have a chance to leave a
legacy with two teams." --P.Z.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE [REGIONAL COVER INSET] WHY THE BILLS ARE ON THE RISE DREW BLEDSOE AFC EASTCOLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Former archfoe Bledsoe looks forward to leading Buffalo back to its winning ways.COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS FLETCHER

NEW TWIST

The Bills are letting new middle linebacker London Fletcher run
free to make plays, which is what he does best. "My last two
years in St. Louis, I had to secure the deep middle in that
Cover 2 defense," he says. "I was out of the picture a lot. Now
I'll be back to being wild again. It'll be London Fletcher here,
there, everywhere."

ENEMY LINES an opposing team's scout sizes up the Bills

"I'm higher on this team than other scouts are. For one, Gregg
Williams coached his ass off last year. I didn't see one game in
which the Bills weren't prepared, and they played hard all year.
They took the Patriots into overtime, ran the ball like crazy on
the Jets and gave other teams trouble too.... I like what they've
done with their offense. Drew Bledsoe could have the best year of
his career. He's motivated again. His cage has been rattled....
They had to do something at quarterback. Last year the word was
out to defensive linemen around the league that if they had a
shot at Rob Johnson, they should let him go down easy, because if
he went out, they'd have to face Alex Van Pelt. The only question
is how Bledsoe will get along with his coordinator, Kevin
Gilbride, who's coming off bad experiences in Pittsburgh and San
Diego. I think those guys will work it out.... Bledsoe has to
like his receivers. They'll stretch the defense and go deep, and
the offensive line is better than people think. There's some
toughness there.... On defense London Fletcher is the new face,
but how's he going to do damage without real stud linemen to keep
the blockers off him? Except for Pat Williams, the line's a bunch
of no-names, but it might be a case of the sum being greater than
its parts.... Aside from Miami and Philadelphia, the Bills might
have the best pair of corners in the league in Nate Clements and
Antoine Winfield."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 8 N.Y. JETS
15 at Minnesota
22 at Denver
29 CHICAGO

Oct. 6 OAKLAND
13 at Houston
20 at Miami
27 DETROIT

Nov. 3 NEW ENGLAND
10 Open date
17 at Kansas City
24 at N.Y. Jets

Dec. 1 MIAMI
8 at New England
15 SAN DIEGO
22 at Green Bay
29 CINCINNATI

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: T1
Opponents' 2001 winning percentage: .546
Games against playoff teams: 9

PROJECTED LINEUP with 2001 statistics
COACH: Gregg Williams; second season with Buffalo (3-13 in NFL)
2001 RECORD: 3-13 (fifth in AFC East)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 22/12/13; defense 26/13/21

OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*

QB Drew Bledsoe[1] 28
66 att. 40 comp. 60.6% 400 yds. 2 TDs 2 int. 75.3 rtg.

RB Travis Henry 87
213 att. 729 yds. 3.4 avg. 22 rec. 179 yds. 8.1 avg. 4 TDs

RB Shawn Bryson 282
80 att. 341 yds. 4.3 avg. 9 rec. 59 yds. 6.6 avg. 2 TDs

FB Larry Centers 113
34 att. 160 yds. 4.7 avg. 80 rec. 620 yds. 7.8 avg. 4 TDs

RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

[PVR*]

WR Eric Moulds 57 67 rec. 904 yds. 5 TDs
WR Peerless Price 107 55 rec. 895 yds. 7 TDs
WR Josh Reed (R)[N] 148 94 rec. 1,740 yds. 7 TDs
TE Jay Riemersma 130 53 rec. 590 yds. 3 TDs
K Mike Hollis[N] 309 29/31 XPs 18/28 FGs 83 pts.
PR Charlie Rogers[N] 356 25 ret. 9.8 avg. 0 TDs
KR Charlie Rogers[N] 356 50 ret. 22.4 avg. 0 TDs

LT Jonas Jennings 6'3" 320 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
LG Ruben Brown 6'3" 304 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Trey Teague[N] 6'5" 292 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Marques Sullivan 6'5" 323 lbs. 10 games 2 starts
RT Mike Williams(R)[N] 6'6" 370 lbs. 12 games 12 starts

DEFENSE

LE Chidi Ahanotu[N] 21 tackles 2 sacks
LT Tyrone Robertson 19 tackles 2 sacks
RT Pat Williams 41 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
RE Aaron Schobel 31 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
OLB Keith Newman 62 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
MLB London Fletcher[N] 89 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
OLB Eddie Robinson[N] 49 tackles 1 sack
CB Antoine Winfield 68 tackles 2 int.
SS Billy Jenkins 5 tackles 0 int.
FS Pierson Prioleau 26 tackles 1 sack
CB Nate Clements 53 tackles 3 int.
P Brian Moorman 80 punts 40.8 avg.

[N] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 98)

"I like what they've done with their offense. Drew Bledsoe could
have the best year of his career."