> The NFLmantra, particularly for Northern teams that regularly have to cope with badweather late in the year, is: You've got to be able to run the ball, and you'vegot to stop the run. Last year the Bills were lousy at both, averaging 3.7yards 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. Thenew left guard, former Redskin Derrick Dockery (seven years, $49¬†million),teams with rising-star left tackle Jason Peters to strengthen that side of theline, while athletic right tackle Langston Walker, late of the Raiders (fiveyears, $25¬†million), should stabilize the strong side.
Offensivecoordinator 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-yardrushing-receiving season for Lynch is a realistic goal. On defense PaulPosluszny, one of the best in a long line of Penn State linebackers, was takenin the second round to man the middle; he and 2006 first-round defensive tackleJohn McCargo (who missed most of last season with a broken bone in his leftfoot), will improve Buffalo's efforts against the run.
> The Billswon't beat New England out of the top spot in the AFC East, but the offensiveoverhaul and victories last December over the Jets and the Dolphins by acombined 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 hasnot made the playoffs in the 21st century. The Bills, 46 games over .500 in the'90s, are 20 games under in this decade.
Buffalo likelyhas 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 going5-2 under Losman's direction in a late-season stretch, the coaches' faith intheir third-year signal-caller strengthened as he completed 65% of his passesand threw 11 touchdowns against four interceptions. "He has really improvedhis fundamentals and his decision-making," Fairchild says. "We're notgoing to be the Colts, and maybe he's not going to be Peyton Manning, but I'mvery comfortable with him going to the line and getting us out of a bad playand into a good one."
It's defense thatwill make or break the Bills' postseason bid, and the case for improvement inthat unit is harder to make. Buffalo parted with three top players--linebackersLondon Fletcher and Takeo Spikes and cornerback Nate Clements; replacing themare undistinguished linebacker Angelo Crowell, journeyman corner Jason Websterand the rookie Posluszny. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell thinks Poslusznyhas the potential to be the face of the franchise, but there's a lot ofpressure on the broad shoulders of the 239-pound rookie. Most pro scouts wonderif Posluszny, who played in a brace last year at Penn State to protect aninjured right knee, has the speed to be a sideline-to-sideline playmaker in thepros. The Bills found Posluszny to be fully recovered, and in camp the formerNittany Lion showed good range. "This defense is ideal, because they tellme to play 41‚ÅÑ2¬†yards off the ball and get to the football," Poslusznysays. "That's what I do best. I'm a pretty instinctive player. I think Ican be the kind of guy to get double digits in tackles, make big plays and helpcause turnovers." He'll need to do all of that for Buffalo to be betterthan .500.
Run defense wasthe team's biggest concern in the off-season. At the league meetings lastMarch, owner Ralph Wilson, vice president Jim Overdorf, general manager MarvLevy and coach Dick Jauron huddled at a table, when Wilson said, "I want toknow what we're going to do about stopping the run." His defense had beensteamrolled for 140.9 rushing yards per game (28th in the league). Two dayslater Buffalo dealt Spikes to the Eagles for defensive tackle Darwin Walker.But Walker demanded a new contract and refused to report; the Bills traded himto Chicago on July 29 for a conditional '08 fifth-round pick. Now they'll haveto rely on McCargo in that spot and hope Posluszny becomes the tackling machinethat Fletcher was.
When Levy watchedtape of Posluszny before the draft, he kept seeing Shane Conlan, therun-stuffing inside linebacker on Levy's Super Bowl teams of the '90s. The twoplayers have much in common: Each wore number 31 at Penn State (Posluszny inhomage to Conlan), each was drafted by Levy to be the defensive linchpin of theBills, 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 Levycould just find players who reminded him of Cornelius Bennett, Bruce Smith andDarryl Talley, Buffalo would be a playoff lock. --P.K.
WITH 2006 STATISTICS
COACH DICK JAURON (43-58 in NFL), second season with Bills
MARSHAWN LYNCH(R) (NEW ACQUISITION)
LANGSTON WALKER(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 8"
JASON WHITTLE(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 4"
HT 6' 3"
DERRICK DOCKERY(NEW ACQUISITION)
HT 6' 6"
HT 6' 4"
SACKS 5 1‚ÅÑ2
SACKS 2 1‚ÅÑ2
PAUL POSLUSZNY(R) (NEW ACQUISITION)
JASON WEBSTER(NEW ACQUISITION)
(R) Rookie (college statistics)
> 2006 RECORD 7-9 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 27/28/30 DEFENSE28/7/18
16 at Pittsburgh
23 at New England
30 N.Y. JETS
8 DALLAS (M)
28 at N.Y. Jets
11 at Miami
18 NEW ENGLAND
25 at Jacksonville
2 at Washington
16 at Cleveland
23 N.Y. GIANTS
30 at Philadelphia
NFL rank T1
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .539
Games against playoff teams 8
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THE KING 500
> LEFT TACKLE
An undrafted '04 free agent, Peters was languishing as a backup tight end untilfilling in for injured right tackle Mike Williams in '05. He hasn't been out ofthe lineup since, sliding to the left last year and quickly becoming dominantat the position. "He's the best big man I've seen come into the league inthe last 20 years," says line coach Jim McNally. "Some of the good passrushers, he just obliterates."
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE BILLS
> J.P. Losman started coming of age last year, buthe's still a little reckless. I think he's still recovering from trying tooutthrow Drew Bledsoe earlier in his career. . . . I don't mind the Bills'spending money on Derrick Dockery in this climate, because he'll produce and beone of the top 15 guards in the league. But $25 million for Langston Walker?Average player at best. . . . That offense still lacks any threat at tight end.. . . Brian Moorman is one of the best punters in history. Great leg, greatplacement of the ball, smart player. . . . They'll miss Nate Clements atcorner, but the guy that defense absolutely couldn't afford to lose was AaronSchobel, who's a top five pass rusher in this league. Good move to lock him uplong term.
twin bill Posluszny (left) reminds Levy of Conlan, his Super Bowl super 'backer.