2011 Buffalo Bills preseason preview

by | Special to CBSSports.com

Chan Gailey (right) is trying to get the Bills back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. (US Presswire)  
Chan Gailey (right) is trying to get the Bills back to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. (US Presswire)  

2010 RECORD: 4-12 (fourth, AFC East)

LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 1999, lost to Tennessee, 22-16, in AFC wild card

COACH (RECORD): Chan Gailey (4-12 in one season with Bills, 22-26 overall)



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OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 18th rushing, 24th passing, 28th scoring

DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS, 2010 (NFL): 32nd rushing, 3rd passing, 28th scoring

KEY ADDITIONS: LB Nick Barnett (from Packers), QB/WR Brad Smith (from Jets), QB Tyler Thigpen (from Dolphins), DE Marcell Dareus (first round, Alabama), CB Aaron Williams (second Round, Texas), LB Kelvin Sheppard (third round, LSU)

KEY DEPARTURES: LB Paul Posluszny (to Jaguars), SS Donte Whitner (to 49ers), DE Marcus Stroud(released), LB Akin Ayodele (not tendered)

IS FITZ FOR REAL? After years of searching for a long-term successor to Jim Kelly, the Bills hope they have stumbled upon an unlikely answer in Ryan Fitzpatrick (3,000 yards passing, 23 TDs, 15 INTs). Can he take the next step, or was last year an aberration? The Harvard grad has less than ideal physical attributes, but he makes up for it with on-field smarts and savvy. How Fitzpatrick fares in the preseason could set the tone for the rest of the year, and it's important that he picks up where he left off. Luckily for him, he won't have to do it alone. The Bills have a surprising number of weapons on offense, led by wide receiver Steve Johnson (82 receptions, 1,073 yards and 10 TDs). Lee Evans (37 receptions, 578 yards, 3 TDs) is looking to bounce back after posting career-low numbers, while Roscoe Parrish (33 receptions, 400 yards, 2 TDs in eight games), David Nelson (31 receptions, 353 yards, 3 TDs) and Donald Jones (18 receptions, 213 yards, 1 TD) all exceeded expectations in 2010. Running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are strong pass catchers out of the backfield, as well.

RUN DEFENSE WOES: Buffalo's run defense wasn't just bad in 2010, it was historically bad. The Bills finished the year last in the NFL against the run, allowing 2,714 yards on the ground -- the second-highest total in franchise history. The team is turning to rookie Marcell Dareus to lead the way up front, as well as a revamped linebacker unit. Dareus, the third overall pick in the draft, is known for his run-stuffing prowess. It's important that he doesn't look out of place in preseason action. The Bills lost their leading tackler in each of the past three seasons, Paul Posluszny, in free agency. A trio of linebackers -- Nick Barnett, Andra Davis and Kelvin Sheppard -- are competing for two starting inside linebacker spots. Barnett (24 tackles in four games with Green Bay) is pretty much a lock to fill Posluszny's shoes; the free-agent addition is healthy and has 787 career tackles. Davis (41 tackles in six games) is a two-down player at this point in his career, but he still packs a punch when healthy. Sheppard, the team's third-round pick, is physical and can move sideline to sideline but missed the early portions of camp because of a hamstring injury. It will be interesting to see how quickly Sheppard picks up Buffalo's defense.

O-LINE SHUFFLE: Surprise, surprise: Buffalo's offensive line is a question mark once again. General manager Buddy Nix has said he thinks the Bills have better players than most people believe, but on paper it's an underwhelming unit. The biggest competition on the line is at center, where former right guard Eric Wood is competing with incumbent starter Geoff Hangartner. Wood has worked with the first unit at camp and is the favorite to land the job, with center being his natural position. There is also a battle at right guard, where Steelers castoff Kraig Urbik is competing with the likes of Chad Rinehart and Mansfield Wrotto. The Bills like Urbik, a 2009 third-round pick of the Steelers, but he's endured some struggles at camp. After bouncing around the league the past two seasons, former Denver starter Erik Pears is the favorite to land the right tackle job. With two brand new starters, the right side of the line is an area to keep an eye on. Left tackle Demetrius Bell is responsible for protecting Fitzpatrick's blind side; Bell played in all 16 games in 2010 after undergoing offseason knee surgery but was inconsistent at best.

LIGHTS OUT? Buffalo's X-factor this season is without question Shawne Merriman. The Bills picked up the outside linebacker off waivers last November, but he participated in 15 minutes of practice before re-aggravating an Achilles' injury. Buffalo decided to take a gamble on Merriman, re-signing him to a two-year deal with hopes he could rejuvenate its lackluster pass rush when healthy. The 27-year-old underwent a variety of offseason treatments to alleviate his recurring Achilles' problem, undergoing shockwave therapy and wearing an immobilizer boot for a month. Through the early stages of camp, it looks like the decision could pay off; Merriman has shown glimpses of his former self and has been one of Buffalo's best defenders. The Bills will closely monitor his progress the next several weeks. Buffalo has lacked a true No. 1 pass rusher since Aaron Schobel retired, and it's possible Merriman could bring an extra dimension to the team's 3-4 scheme. A sack or two in preseason action would do a lot to erase his health concerns.

FINAL WORD: The Bills desperately need to see some improvement along the offensive and defensive lines this preseason. The offense has its share of playmakers, but it could all go for naught if Fitzpatrick is running for his life. The defense needs to show that it is more stout against the run and won't get pushed around. Marcell Dareus must be an impact player right away. Chan Gailey is trying to change the losing culture in Buffalo, but if the trenches remain a mess this preseason it will seem like the same old, same old heading into the regular season.


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