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Bills camp report: Optimism brewing in Buffalo, and for good reason

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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After leading the NFL in INTs last season, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will need to reduce his mistakes. (AP)  
After leading the NFL in INTs last season, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will need to reduce his mistakes. (AP)  

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- General manager Buddy Nix says the time is now for the Buffalo Bills to be "relevant," and no translation is needed. He wants more wins than losses.

Period.

But that happened only once in the last decade, and even then it wasn't good enough to get the Bills to the playoffs. Nope, the Buffalo Bills haven't been to the postseason since 1999, and if that sounds like a long time it's only because it is.

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Nobody has been absent longer, and Buffalo is due ... if not overdue.

"We've kind of had the attitude that we walk around with our hat in our hand and apologize for being here," Nix said. "Well, that's over. We don't do that anymore. We've got to win some games.

"Talk is cheap this time of year. Everybody does it. Now we need to seal it and win games."

Buffalo hasn't won more than seven games in any season since 2004 when it was 9-7, but there's a feeling around the league that the Bills might be ready to break through. The reason: Defense. They didn't have it a year ago; they should have it now.

It's not just that they signed free-agent Mario Williams, added pass rusher Mark Anderson and drafted cornerback Stephon Gilmore. It's that a team that couldn't pressure the pocket a year ago should now, and that unit is in the hands of new coordinator Dave Wannstedt, whose strength is squeezing quarterbacks with a four-man line.

Well, this just in: The Bills have the people to suit Wannstedt's scheme.

"We've not been where we want to be the last couple of years," said coach Chan Gailey, "but we think we're on the right track."

So do I.

Team Objectives

 More sacks. They had 29 last season, which wasn't very good. But they had 10 in one game, which means ... uh-huh, they had 19 in the 15 games that were left, and that stinks. Now you know why the Bills put the full-court press on Williams and Anderson. With their additions, Buffalo figures to do something it hasn't since 2006 -- namely, average more than two sacks per contest. But it's not just Williams and Anderson. Shawne Merriman, who once had 17 sacks in San Diego, says he's over a lingering Achilles that handicapped him in recent years, and he figures to be used as a designated pass rusher off the edge for 15-20 snaps a game. "I think it could be good for him," said Gailey, "and I think it could be really great for us. Because he's a force when he's healthy."

 Keep Fred Jackson healthy. The star back was on pace to run for nearly 1,600 yards a year ago and was second in the league in yards from scrimmage when he bowed out with a broken leg. The Bills were 5-5 then. They finished 6-10. Do the math. They won exactly one game without Jackson. But he's back, he's healthy and he's headed for some split shifts with C.J. Spiller, who excelled in Jackson's absence a year ago. Coaches believe Spiller gained confidence from the experience and plan to use him with and without Jackson in the backfield. The feeling is that Spiller not only helps the club; he can help the 31-year-old Jackson, too, but reducing his carries and the hits he absorbs. "Either one of them wouldn't admit they want to give up snaps," said Nix, "but it will make them last longer."

 Reduce Ryan Fitzpatrick's mistakes. He led the league in interceptions with 23, but look a little more closely: He committed 17 of them in the last 10 games, including four in the season finale. Some of that has to do with where the Bills positioned themselves early, and, usually, it was behind their opponent ... and sometimes way behind. So Fitzpatrick did what any quarterback would and threw ... and threw ... and threw. "He was in a bad situation," said Nix, "but we're going to make it better for him." With the Bills' defensive improvements, the hope is that sacks go up, yards go down, turnovers go up and short fields translate to more Buffalo points and fewer Fitzpatrick gaffes. "It's a huge domino effect," Gailey said. "When one area of your team can get significantly better it impacts the rest of your football team. There's not nearly as much pressure."

Camp Battles

 Left tackle -- Chris Hairston is the holdover, but he has only a year's experience at the position. Now the Bills have gone out and spent a second-round draft pick on Cordy Glenn, and let the games begin. Glenn is strictly a left tackle, while Hairston can play either side. Conventional wisdom says that would give Glenn the edge, but there is no leader at the position ... not now there's not. Both take roughly the same number of reps, and both have taken turns with the first team. "I don't know how that one is going to end," Gailey admitted.

 Defensive right end -- Mario Williams holds down the left side by choice. So that leaves Anderson and Chris Kelsay to duke it out on the right side, and there is something here for each. Logic tells you that Kelsay starts in base defense, with Anderson -- who had 10 sacks a year ago -- off the bench in passing downs. But the team's first depth chart of the summer defies that logic, listing Anderson as the starter. Look for Merriman to take turns off the bench, maybe when Williams catches a break.

 Backup defensive tackle -- Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams are the starters, and they're two good ones. But who are the backups? Good question. Dwan Edwards, Spencer Johnson, Torell Troup, Kellen Heard, Alex Carrington and Jarron Gilbert are the competition, and you'd have to think Edwards -- a starter in the Bills' 3-4 scheme -- would be a lock. But nobody is at this point. Nevertheless, when the Bills released their first depth chart Edwards and Johnson were listed as second-team backups.

Somebody to Watch

CB Stephon Gilmore. The Bills' first draft pick, he's an immediate hit at camp. No matter whom you seek out on the club, and no matter which side of the ball he plays, the guy winds up gushing over Gilmore. "Besides the pass rushers," said safety George Wilson, "Stephon is probably the guy I'm looking most forward to. From the first snap in OTAs and mini-camps he's challenged our receivers and has been very physical at the line of scrimmage. He's a big guy. He has great size and speed. And he has great ball skills when the ball is in the air. I'm very excited to see Stephon line up against some of the best receivers this league has to offer." And he will. He lines up opposite Aaron Williams on the first team.

Injury Roundup

 CB Terrence McGee isn't fully recovered from a torn patellar tendon he suffered in November, and it could determine where he plays -- and I'm not talking about the depth chart; I'm talking about a zip code. The expectation is that McGee makes the team, but he's not healthy and admitted recently that he's concerned he might not make the 53-man roster.

 WR David Nelson is sidelined with a strained tendon in his right knee but should return to practice this week. DL Terrell Troup is recovering from back surgery but had small setback Friday that kept him off the field a day later. Right tackle Erik Pears, who is recovering from off-season surgery (sports hernia) resumed practicing at camp. C Eric Wood, who tore his ACL last year, has been eased back into team workouts, a sign that he should be ready for the season opener. WR Stevie Johnson aggravated his groin and has been out lately, but look for him to return to practice Monday. DT Kellen Heard (ankle) returned to practice Saturday.

The Final Word

There's a quiet confidence about this Buffalo team that is encouraging for long-suffering Bills' fans. This is a team that made few ripples over the years, yet shook up the league in the offseason by landing the best free-agent defender in Williams.

Williams likes the team, likes the defense and, OK, likes that $100-million contract he signed. But most of all, he said, he likes the area. You heard me. He said Buffalo reminds him of his North Carolina roots, which means he feels as if he's home.

"Everybody worries about the weather," he said, "but if the weather is going to hold you back from making something of yourself you're really not pushing yourself. You want to go to Houston where it's 110? Or you want to Green Bay where it's 20 below? So you pick your poison."

Williams did, and now the Buffalo Bills are a legitimate playoff threat. People tell me Fitzpatrick could hold these guys back, but he shouldn't -- not if the defense is as good as it's supposed to be.

A year ago, it hemorrhaged a franchise-record number of yards and allowed the second most points in team history. That's not going to happen again, which should make Fitzpatrick better and the Bills more dangerous.

"On paper," said Gailey, "we're better. But you have to prove it over the course of a season."

So prove it, Buffalo. We're all waiting.

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