3 BUFFALO BILLS

September 04, 2011

Division's a killer, but foes won't run roughshod over these Bills

Offensive coordinators last season had little reason to suffer those caffeinated, crash-on-the-office-futon weeks before matchups against the Bills. Their game plans were simple: Establish the run, mix in some more runs, then close things out with the run. Buffalo's defense faced 571 rushing attempts, more than any other team had faced in a decade, and it was powerless to stop anyone. On their way to a 4--12 record, their worst since 2001, the Bills permitted an NFL-high nine running backs to rush for more than 100 yards against them, including three 100-yard performances in two games by three Jets backs: Shonn Greene, Joe McKnight and LaDainian Tomlinson. The other three teams in the division, by way of comparison, allowed a combined four 100-yard rushers.

"I think a lot of teams saw an advantage in the run game [against Buffalo]," says Bills newcomer Brad Smith, who as a Jet last season gained 71 yards against Buffalo on only eight carries. "I don't think that's going to be so much the case this year." Bolstering the front seven in their 3--4 scheme was the Bills' central concern over the off-season, and they appear to have found some answers. With the third overall pick in April's draft, Buffalo selected 6'3", 343-pound tackle Marcell Dareus, who made 20 tackles for a loss over his final two seasons at Alabama and was named the defensive MVP of the 2010 BCS national championship game. In the seventh round, for good measure, the Bills added 6'4", 394-pound project Michael Jasper out of Tennessee's Bethel University, an NAIA school. "We call him the Eclipse," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick says of Jasper, who weighed as much as 448 in college but has a 33-inch vertical leap. "He blocks out the sun."

Three months after the draft the Bills added the player who should be the key to their run-stopping renaissance: inside linebacker Nick Barnett. Buffalo can be a tough sell for top free agents, but Barnett, who spent his first eight pro seasons—including six in which he amassed at least 100 tackles—with the Packers, viewed it as an attractive opportunity. "I had some chances to go to some bigger markets—Detroit, New York, Philly," he says, "but I think you get a certain feeling, a certain vibe with these small-town markets."

Barnett also gets a certain vibe from the prospect of lining up behind the wide-bodied Dareus. "Playing behind that guy, hopefully he eats two [blockers], and I can just run through and hit somebody," Barnett says. More than that, though, Barnett embraces the challenge of becoming the leader of Buffalo's front seven, spiritually and otherwise. "A lot of teams ran because we were losing games last year," he says. "This year, if they try to do it, we have to make them pay for it. Every yard that they gain, we have to punish them."

Obscured by Buffalo's ineptitude against the run last year—the Bills yielded not only more rushing attempts than any other team but also a higher average per carry (4.8 yards)—was the fact that the pass rush was feeble too. The team mustered 27 sacks, the league's third-lowest total. That did not represent a new trend: Since 2001 no Bill other than the now retired Aaron Schobel has had more than 6½ sacks in a season. Every other team has had at least four such players.

Now a bolstered run defense should lead to more pass-rushing opportunities for the Bills. "If we stop the run, we make 'em throw more, and if we make 'em throw more, we get more turnovers and more chances for sacks," says coach Chan Gailey.

And the Bills may finally have a player with the ability to take advantage of those chances. It has been four years since outside linebacker Shawne Merriman turned in his third consecutive double-digit-sack season, with the Chargers. Since then he has suffered injuries to his knees, foot and calf and has played in just 19 games. San Diego, fed up, placed Merriman on waivers last November, and the Bills claimed him the following day. They now seem poised to reap the benefits of that gamble. "A lot of people want to know the [answer to the] big question: Am I back?" says Merriman. "Just come out and watch practice, watch me move around, and you'll know."

Indeed, in training camp—and during the Bills' preseason opener, in which he sacked Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie on consecutive plays—Merriman, still only 27, looked like a savvier (if slightly less explosive) version of his old self. "When you're so athletically gifted, you can do things without worrying about the little stuff," he says. "My injuries made me an overall better football player."

While the Bills' holes were too many to fill in a single off-season—their offensive line, weak for years, remains shaky—their fortified defense should ensure an improvement.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 25

QB RYAN FITZPATRICK

ATT 441

COMP 255

PCT 57.8

YARDS 3,000

YD/ATT 6.80

TD 23

INT 15

RATING 81.8

RB FRED JACKSON

ATT 222

YARDS 927

REC 31

TTD 7

FB COREY MCINTYRE

ATT 4

YARDS 5

REC 4

TTD 1

WR STEVE JOHNSON

REC 82

YARDS 1,073

AVG 13.1

TTD 10

WR DONALD JONES

REC 18

YARDS 213

AVG 11.8

TTD 1

TE SCOTT CHANDLER

REC 1

YARDS 8

AVG 8.0

TTD 0

LT DEMETRIUS BELL

G 16

SACKS 5¼

HOLD 1

FALSE 4

LG ANDY LEVITRE

G 16

SACKS 2¼

HOLD 3

FALSE 3

C ERIC WOOD

G 14

SACKS 3

HOLD 3

FALSE 1

RG KRAIG URBIK

G 10

SACKS 0

HOLD 0

FALSE 0

RT ERIK PEARS

G 2

SACKS 1

HOLD 0

FALSE 1

RB C.J. SPILLER

ATT 74

YARDS 283

REC 24

TTD 1

WR ROSCOE PARRISH

REC 33

YARDS 400

AVG 12.1

TTD 2

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 24

DE MARCELL DAREUS (R)

TACKLES 34

SACKS 4½

INT 0

NT KYLE WILLIAMS

TACKLES 77

SACKS 5½

INT 0

DE DWAN EDWARDS

TACKLES 57

SACKS 1

INT 1

LB CHRIS KELSAY

TACKLES 72

SACKS 3½

INT 0

LB ANDRA DAVIS

TACKLES 41

SACKS 0

INT 1

LB NICK BARNETT

TACKLES 24

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB SHAWNE MERRIMAN

TACKLES 6

SACKS 0

INT 0

CB TERRENCE MCGEE

TACKLES 18

SACKS 0

INT 0

SS GEORGE WILSON

TACKLES 35

SACKS 0

INT 2

FS JAIRUS BYRD

TACKLES 89

SACKS 1

INT 1

CB LEODIS MCKELVIN

TACKLES 62

SACKS 0

INT 2

DB DRAYTON FLORENCE

TACKLES 58

SACKS 0

INT 3

SPECIALISTS

K RIAN LINDELL

FG 16

FGA 21

XP 31

PTS 79

P BRIAN MOORMAN

PUNTS 75

GROSS 42.4

NET 36.6

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics: New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 4--12

September

11 at Kansas City

18 Oakland

25 New England

October

2 at Cincinnati

9 Philadelphia

16 at N.Y. Giants

23 BYE

30 Washington*

November

6 N.Y. Jets

13 at Dallas

20 at Miami

27 at N.Y. Jets

December

4 Tennessee

11 at San Diego

18 Miami

24 Denver (Sat)

January

1 at New England

* in Toronto

COACH: CHAN GAILEY

AGE: 59

SECOND SEASON WITH THE BILLS (4--12)

Though he made his name as an offensive guru in the '90s, Gailey's recent offenses have been punchless: He was Chiefs coordinator in '08 when they ranked 24th, and the Bills were 25th last year. But with this year's cast of playmakers—Fred Jackson, Steve Johnson, Brad Smith and C.J. Spiller—he can prove that the pro game hasn't passed him by.

SPOTLIGHT

BRAD SMITH, QB/RB/WR

The Bills signed the 27-year-old Smith away from the Jets while New York was distracted by its ultimately fruitless pursuit of sparkly free agent Nnamdi Asomugha. The four-year, $15 million contract Buffalo dangled certainly hastened Smith's decision, but he was also lured north by the chance to again be what he once was: a quarterback. "I've never, ever had the opportunity to throw so much since I've been in the NFL," says Smith, who at Missouri was the first Division I player to pass for 8,000 yards and run for 4,000 but as a Jet had attempted just seven throws in five seasons. "To actually work drills, talk through protections, footwork, reads—I've never had that as much as I've had here."

The Bills, of course, already have a starting quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick and a capable new backup in Tyler Thigpen, the former Dolphin and Chief, so coach Chan Gailey plans to use Smith in much the same way he used Kordell Stewart with the Steelers back in 1996, when Gailey was Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator. That year, Slash's second as a pro, he passed the ball 30 times, rushed 39 times, caught 17 passes and had eight touchdowns. "The difference is that Brad's got five years of experience," says Gailey. "I think Brad's able to handle a lot more in the first year of our Wildcat than Kordell [did in '96]."

PHOTOHANNAH FOSLIEN (GAILEY) PHOTOCOURTESY BUFFALO BILLS (MERRIMAN)RECHARGED In what could be his last opportunity to prove he's still an elite pass rusher, Merriman has shown flashes of the form that made him a star in San Diego. PHOTOCOURTESY BUFFALO BILLS (SMITH)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)