AFC East: Dominic Rhodes
Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Jets at Patriots divisional playoff game:
The Jets simply cannot pull off a 43-point swing in six weeks. Essentially, the same Jets are going into the same Gillette Stadium to play the same Patriots that obliterated them 45-3 on Dec. 6. The Jets must do two things: 1) find a way to undercut the Patriots, who have scored at least 31 points eight straight games; 2) escalate production from an offense that has been known to disappear without relying too heavily on erratic quarterback Mark Sanchez. I don't see the Jets holding the Patriots to 16 points like they did the short-handed Colts. The Jets' best shot to close the gap will be with a domineering ground attack from LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. The Jets have been running the ball effectively, and the Patriots appear most vulnerable on the defensive line. But rushing their way to four or five touchdowns doesn't sound plausible.
The Patriots have more potent defense and special teams, too. The Jets lost their reputation for being opportunistic. Brad Smith returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Dwight Lowery had two defensive touchdown returns, and Cole had one. But the Patriots scored nine touchdowns on defense and special teams. Inside linebacker Gary Guyton, Kyle Arrington and kick returner Brandon Tate scored two touchdowns apiece. The Patriots also led the NFL with 25 interceptions and tied for seventh with 13 fumble recoveries. The Jets finished second with 18 fumble recoveries but collected only 12 interceptions.
- The Jets' defense couldn't have gotten off to a better start without forcing a turnover. The Jets kicked off to start the game and held the Colts to three straight three-and-outs. Jets safety Brodney Pool made some big stops at a position that needed to step up. But the offense couldn't take advantage, gaining 47 total yards on their three ensuing series.
- Pool was the safety on the play Pierre Garcon scored a 57-yard touchdown with 5:25 left in the half. Antonio Cromartie was the cornerback.
- There has been only one red-zone possession. The Jets made it to the Colts' 19-yard line late in the half. On a third-and-10 play, the Jets would have been fine with anything but a sack or an interception. Sanchez forced a ball to Dustin Keller near the goal line that Justin Tryon picked off.
- Jets should be down 7-3 and with the ball to start the second half.
- Sanchez's stat line: 9-of-19 for 84 yards and one interception.
- Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson has looked spry. He has seven carried for 49 yards, including a 23-yard run on the Jets' second play.
- Jets receiver/kick returner/option quarterback Brad Smith left the game in the first quarter with a quadriceps injury. He rode a stationary bike on the sideline but hasn't gone back into the game yet. The Jets announced his status was questionable.
- The Jets' defense has stuffed the run. Colts running backs Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai ran seven times for 7 yards in the first quarter.
But the Colts outclassed the Jets in the second half and won easily to advance to the Super Bowl. The Jets had to regroup, knowing that to attain their Super Bowl dreams, they had to figure out a way to get past the Colts.
They won't need to look for them in the playoffs this year. The Jets and Colts will meet in the first round Saturday night, again in Indianapolis.
ESPN.com AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break down the rematch.
Tim Graham: The first thought I have about the Colts is that Peyton Manning isn't going to win this game with his aura. Aside from past experience, the Jets don't have much reason to quake in their cleats Saturday night. They can beat this guy. Manning has proven to be a mortal without tight end Dallas Clark and receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez to target. Seventeen interceptions? Almost knocked out of the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars? These Colts are a shadow of what we've come to know.
Paul Kuharsky: How about with his chakra, then? You've been spending too much time with Ricky Williams, dude. Has Manning been perfect? Hardly. But as Colts blogger Nate Dunlevy points out, and our ESPN Stats & Information confirms, Manning threw for 4,700 yards, tossed for more than 30 touchdowns, connected on 66 percent of his throws, had an interception rate of 2.5 percent and won 10 games. If that's a shadow of what you've known, you must really know Tom Brady’s 2007 season then. Because that was the only other time it has happened.
PK: Well, Manning's always been crushed for being great in the regular season and not good enough in the playoffs. Congrats on being the first to hammer him for winning "only" 10 games and the division while throwing to Jacob Tamme and Blair White.
TG: That's what I mean. The Jets can contain those guys much easier than Clark and Collie. Plus, the Jets have been preparing for this matchup since last season's AFC Championship Game. They helplessly watched Manning carve the center of the field against them and realized immediately -- even though they had Darrelle Revis -- they needed more cornerbacks. Specifically with Manning in mind, the Jets traded for Antonio Cromartie and drafted Kyle Wilson in the first round. Previous starting cornerbacks Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman gave them depth in nickel and dime packages. The Jets' biggest issue is at safety, where injuries have made them vulnerable.
PK: Manning has a bit of experience against teams with poor safety situations. His numbers against Houston and Jacksonville? Just nine touchdowns, one pick and a 101.5 passer rating. On the other side is the unspectacular Sanchez. I doubt Sanchez will be able to attack Aaron Francisco, the Colts' fourth-string strong safety, in a similar fashion, but we'll see. The Sanchize was near perfect in the first half of last season's AFC Championship Game. But the Jets asked him to throw only seven passes. After intermission, Indy greatly reduced his potency. The Colts didn't sack him and were credited with only four hits that day. The Colts' big-play potential from their Pro Bowl defensive ends was neutralized, and they still rolled to a 30-17 win. Of course, it might have had something to do with Manning throwing two-second half touchdowns to Sanchez's zero (and one interception). What happens this time if Dwight Freeney and/or Robert Mathis are able to introduce themselves to him a few times?
TG: Sanchez absolutely is the pivotal figure for the Jets on Saturday night. But, much like the personnel adjustments head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum made on the defensive side to thwart Manning, they made changes on offense with the playoffs in mind. Sanchez might not have progressed much in his second season, but he didn't have a sophomore slump either. He has gained another 11 months and 16 games of NFL experience since the last time he faced the Colts. Plus, the Jets' offense has the ability to come from behind, something it couldn't do before. Last season's Jets were all ground-and-pound, and if an opponent took a two-score lead, the Jets' chances to win were slim. Sanchez showed several times this year he can strike in crunch time. Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson out of the backfield give him much better weapons to go along with Braylon Edwards and tight end Dustin Keller.
PK: The most dramatic on-the-field difference in the Colts this year as compared to last is how they finished up running the ball and defending the run. Indianapolis enters the playoffs coming off four games in which they ran for 4.5 yards a carry and held opponents to 3.5 yards. Last year in their final four meaningful regular-season games, they were getting 3.5 yards and allowing 4.1 yards.
TG: Maybe the Colts will morph into the 1972 Miami Dolphins before our eyes.
TG: Momentum on the ground has been a concern for the Jets since their bye in Week 7. Tomlinson went from MVP candidate to looking like the worn out player the San Diego Chargers thought they were bidding farewell. But Shonn Greene and Tomlinson found some traction in the closing weeks. Let's not even factor in what the Jets did against the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale, even though their backups trampled the Bills' first-stringers for 276 yards.
PK: I’m always willing to toss out Buffalo. I don’t even really like wings.
TG: Yeah, but I know you still have a cache of Rick James 8-tracks. Anyway, the Jets ran the ball well against three of the NFL's best run defenses late in the year. They surpassed the Pittsburgh Steelers' league-leading average by 43 yards and the Chicago Bears' second-rated run defense by 34 yards. As for stopping the run, the Jets pride themselves on it and improved statistically this year. They ranked third this year at 90.9 yards a game and 3.6 yards a carry. But -- and this is a big one -- they allowed more than 100 yards in each of their games before the finale. The Steelers averaged 5.8 yards a carry. The Bears averaged 4.4 yards. That said, I would be willing to bet if the Colts wanted to try to run the Jets to death and not have Manning throw so much, then the Jets would be thrilled.
PK: Give me a little impersonation of Rex Ryan thrilled after winning this game.
TG: It probably would go a little something like this ... "Well, shoot, doesn't feel much better than that, to be honest with ya. We played like Jets today. It was a dogfight out there; I'll tell ya that much. Those Colts are sunthin' else. One thing I'll say about them: I saw Joseph Addai running like Lydell Mitchell out there and was, like, 'Whoa! Wait a second! We could be in for a long day here.' But our defense was flying around and eventually found a way to wrestle him down out there. I said earlier in the week this was personal with Peyton Manning, and they do a great job. He's great, and it's hard to get to him, but I just feel like we knew what to expect and were able to find a way to bear down and put all our chips in the center of the table and beat him. That guy's had my number and it feels good to know I can beat the guy when it counts. But I gotta give a ton of credit to our offense out there, too. Mark Sanchez played great and showed why we traded up to draft him. That right there's what we saw when we scouted him and just knew this guy was going to be a special player. Their crowd was tough with the way they were roaring at the opening kickoff I was, like, 'Whooo! Here we go!' It was full speed ahead. But one thing I should point out is that I broke out my lucky sweatshirt with the pizza stain this week." ... How would Jim Caldwell react to a Colts win Saturday night?
PK: I can hear him, his voice just the same as if they'd have lost: "We're pleased to have beaten a good football team, a quality football team. It's gratifying that our work this week paid off. I shared with you some of the examples of the studiousness I encountered during the preparation week. You saw the rewards of that. We'll enjoy it, we should enjoy it, it was hard-fought and we’re fortunate. We will have to do those same things to prepare for Pittsburgh. It’s a tough place to play, an excellent football team. It's a new challenge. It will be fun to see them get out there and see what they can do."
TG: In that case, I'm glad I'll be covering the Jets' locker room, win or lose. It'll be more interesting. I think the Jets have a better chance to win the game than a lot of prognosticators are giving them credit for. But even if they can't pull off the upset, they'll face a lot of questions as an organization. With all of the negative attention they've generated this season, a loss against the team they spent a year preparing for should lead to considerable introspection in Florham Park. Should we make picks?
PK: Sure. I pick St. Elmo. Make a reservation.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend’s games:
Fred Jackson has one more game to himself. The Buffalo Bills gave Jackson a vote of confidence that he could be a one-man show out of the backfield when they trimmed Dominic Rhodes on roster cutdown day. Jackson has thrived. With Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch serving the last of his three-game suspension for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints, Jackson has one more chance to show he can be The Man.
|David Butler II/US Presswire|
|Fred Jackson has the Bills' backfield all to himself for another week.|
Jackson ranks fifth in rushing with 220 yards and is coming off a 163-yard game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He also has 11 catches for 108 yards and a touchdown. Lynch might not get the same percentage of touches as last year when he comes back.
I'm eager to see if Wes Welker and Julian Edelman both play Sunday. It might be the only way to prove they're not the same person. Reports say Welker should play Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. He missed the last game because of a knee injury. Edelman didn't play in the season opener, perhaps because of an ankle injury, but the Welker lookalike recorded game-highs with eight catches for 98 yards in Sunday's defeat to the New York Jets.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady seemed to suggest afterward Edelman would have played in Week 1 if healthy and that it wasn't an either-or decision between Welker and the rookie. Welker and Edelman simultaneously on the field? The Falcons will be seeing double.
The Miami Dolphins face another grueling tight end matchup. They couldn't contain Tony Gonzalez in Week 1 and were trampled by Dallas Clark in Week 2. They combined for a dozen receptions for 256 yards and two touchdowns. Now the Dolphins get to face San Diego Chargers star Antonio Gates. The Dolphins went into their first two games fully cognizant of the threats Gonzalez and Clark posed. The Dolphins devised a game plan to stop them. They failed anyway.
Where are the Jets' heads? It would be understandable after their first two performances that the Jets would be feeling invincible these days. They're 2-0 and coming off an emotionally charged triumph over the Patriots. The defense has been phenomenal. Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez has been unflappable.
But the Jets need to keep their start in perspective. Next up is a wounded opponent. The Tennessee Titans are 0-2 but much better than their record suggests. If the Jets can put the Titans away and get to 3-0, then people are going to start mentioning them as a Super Bowl contender. Whether that's legitimate or not is moot. That kind of talk will intensify.
Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis will have Week 3 off -- relatively speaking. I know this is going to come off a slap in the face to Justin Gage, but after shutting down Andre Johnson and Randy Moss in consecutive games, Revis can shut it down Sunday by comparison. Revis kept Johnson and Moss -- two of the three or four most dangerous receivers in the NFL -- to eight catches for 59 yards. Gage is the best receiver Tennessee has, with nine catches.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The soundtrack for this blog item, Destiny Child's "Say My Name," should be playing in the back of your brain as you read on.
If you ain't runnin' game
|Rick Stewart/Getty Images|
|Fred Jackson believes the Bills can make a "statement" against the Patriots on Monday night.|
Fred Jackson is entering his third NFL season, but a household name he's not.
Not even those scouting him, including a team that was trampled by him, know who this guy is.
Jackson is the Buffalo Bills' backup running back, but the underrated and versatile reserve will move to the forefront for the first three weeks of the season, while Pro Bowler Marshawn Lynch serves a suspension.
By the end of the month, fans outside of Western New York should know his name. Heading into Monday night's opener against the New England Patriots, though, he's practically anonymous.
"Thomas, the running back, had a great game against us last year to end the year," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday on a conference call with Bills reporters.
The Bills don't have a running back with the first or last name Thomas. They have a Fred and a Jackson, and that's about it because they released Dominic Rhodes on cutdown day. Rhodes was supposed to help Jackson make up for Lynch's absence, but the Bills decided to lean heavily on Jackson with some support from Xavier Omon.
Jackson is hoping to introduce himself to the country on the big stage in prime time. He has played on Monday night before, but not as the featured back. This will be a showcase game. Brady will return after missing last season with a knee injury. Terrell Owens will make his Bills debut.
"Everybody is watching, and it's a great place to go out and make some plays," Jackson said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for us to help us as a team get started on the right path.
"We’ve got New England and Tom Brady is back, so everyone will be watching that game to see what he can do. What better place for us to go out and make a statement for ourselves?"
See, Tom? He knows your name.
Jackson is easily overlooked because of his limited pedigree. He played for Division III Coe College, wasn't drafted, played for Sioux City of the U.S. Indoor Football League, made it to the Rhein Fire of NFL Europa, landed on Buffalo's practice squad and made the roster for eight games in 2007.
He played in all 16 games last year and started three. He rushed for 571 yards and three touchdowns and caught 37 passes for 317 yards. He also can return punts, breaking off a 35-yarder last year and averaging 16.6 yards on seven tries.
Jackson had an outstanding game against the Patriots in the season finale. The winds raged so harshly they twisted the Ralph Wilson Stadium goal posts, the Patriots knew the Bills had little choice but to run. Lynch was out with an injury. But Jackson still ran 27 times for 136 yards, both career highs.
"Let's not forget that Mr. Jackson ran for about 130 yards on us last year into a 50 mile-per hour wind when we knew he was going to run the ball," Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees said this week. "I'm sure they wish they had Marshawn. You never want to have anybody out, but Mr. Jackson can do a very respectful job and he has done that against us."
No, his name ain't Thomas. It's Fred. Mr. Jackson if you're nasty.
We'll see if anybody's singing a different tune four days from now.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn't have to think back too far to remember the last time his team got burned by a wounded opponent.
The Miami Dolphins, coming off a 1-15 season, had started out 0-2 when they pulled into Gillette Stadium. That was the afternoon Miami opened up a can of whoopcat and stunned New England 38-13.
So don't for one moment think Belichick is chalking up Monday night's matchup with the Buffalo Bills as a victory.
Buffalo's offense is in chaos. They fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert on Friday and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, whose only play-calling experience was with the Frankfurt Galaxy in 2005.
They released running back Dominic Rhodes on Saturday and dumped left tackle Langston Walker on Tuesday. Marshawn Lynch, who the Bills used a lot in the preseason, has begun a three-game suspension.
On a conference call Tuesday, Belichick was asked how difficult it can be to scout an opponent that has undergone a sudden and significant transformation just before the start of a season.
"I know from experience and from observing other teams and other situations similar to this, you can't really change everything you're doing in a week or in a few days," Belichick said. "You have to take the foundation you have. You might modify it a little bit, but you can't completely overhaul it in a couple of days."
The Bills are hoping a different personality will provide a more favorable interpretation of the same playbook that produced zero touchdowns for their first-team offense on 16 preseason possessions.
Belichick, however, said what the Bills showed in the preseason still provides valuable insight on what the Patriots can expect.
"I'm sure that Buffalo will continue to run a lot of the plays they've already run," Belichick said. "They may cook them up a little bit differently or modify them somewhat based on a different philosophy, but I think it will be pretty consistent with what they're doing.
"Now that being said, I know that going into opening day every team holds back a few things for the start of the regular season that weren't out there in preseason. ... I'm sure they’ll have some wrinkles and things that we won't have prepared for, but at the same time when you've been in training camp and have had 40 practices, by the time you get to opening day there will be a lot of things that you'll be doing in that first game that you will have spent a lot of time on, and hopefully you’ll be able to do well in the regular season when it counts.
"We all know that we're going to have to rely on those things that we've been doing and not cook up a big new game plan -- come out and run the wishbone, do something we haven't done all year -- and think that [we’re] going to even be able to execute it very well."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
New York Jets
- New York Daily News reporter Rich Cimini writes the Jets' interest in Brandon Marshall is fading fast.
- New York Post reporter Mark Cannizzaro projects greatness for quarterback Mark Sanchez.
- Newsday's Roderick Boone takes a gander at the significant steps backup quarterback Erik Ainge took in preseason.
- CBSSports.com columnist Ray Ratto gives Turk Schonert some career advice -- for a career that's probably over.
- Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reporter Sal Maiorana doesn't see much reason for hope, writing the "2009 standings say the Bills are 0-0, but it sure feels like about 0-6 right now."
- Buffalo News reporter Allen Wilson tells us why running back Xavier Omon made the roster while Dominic Rhodes did not.
- South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter Mike Berardino notes how loose Tony Sparano is heading into the season opener.
- Palm Beach Post reporter Edgar Thompson takes a look at backup tight end Joey Haynos, whose role increased with David Martin's trip to injured reserve.
- Anthony Fasano is turning into an all-around tight end, writes the Miami Herald's Jeff Darlington.
- Boston Herald columnist Ron Borges advises nose tackle Vince Wilfork to hold out unless the Patriots meet a Wednesday deadline for a contract extension.
- Tom Brady tells WEEI that the trade of Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders is business and nothing more.
- Boston Globe reporter Monique Walker takes a look at how long snapper Jake Ingram is integrating with the special teams.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Biggest surprise: The Bills lopped versatile running back Dominic Rhodes from their roster. The only free-agent signing more notable than Rhodes was receiver Terrell Owens. The Bills obtained Rhodes to provide depth behind Marshawn Lynch, who will be suspended for the first three games. The backs at their disposal are Fred Jackson, Xavier Omon and fullback Corey McIntyre.
Backup offensive lineman Kirk Chambers, who played all 16 games and started at right tackle, right guard and left tackle last year, was waived.
The Bills waived tight end Jonathan Stupar despite a great statistical preseason. He led the NFL with 19 receptions for 184 yards and a touchdown. The Bills opted to keep Derek Schouman and Derek Fine along with fourth-round draft pick Shawn Nelson.
Buffalo also cut a draft pick from this year, sixth-round defensive back Cary Harris.
No-brainers: The Bills placed James Hardy on the physically unable to perform list. He won't be allowed to work out with the team for six weeks. Last year's second-round draft choice suffered a knee injury in Week 15 and still is recovering. The Bills could afford to shelve Hardy because the have plenty of depth at receiver.
What's next: With Jackson and Omon the only viable runners on the roster who can play against the New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints, the Bills must be on the lookout for backfield support.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
|Luc Leclerc-US PRESSWIRE|
|Buffalo Bills running back Dominic Rhodes was cut Saturday.|
One day after the Buffalo Bills fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, they've followed up with another surprising move.
An NFL source confirmed the Bills have released running back Dominic Rhodes, one of their biggest offseason acquisitions.
The move is surprising because the Bills were expected to rely on Rhodes' running and receiving skills while usual starter Marshawn Lynch served a three-game suspension to start the season. Fred Jackson is the only back on the roster with significant NFL experience.
Rhodes started Thursday night's preseason finale. He finished the preseason with 19 carries for 64 yards and a touchdown. He fumbled twice and lost one.
Sources inform me it has been a tense day so far at One Bills Drive and that other surprises might be in the offing.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
|Jason Bridge/US Presswire|
|Trent Edwards and Buffalo's starters have not impressed this preseason.|
The Buffalo Bills' strutted into the preseason schedule with serious offensive weaponry, bandoliers strapped across their chests and looking dangerous at the skill positions.
Through four preseason games, their first unit is firing nothing but blanks.
Buffalo's starters have yet to score a touchdown in the preseason. They were shut out again Saturday night in a 17-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
Despite opening camp a week earlier than almost half the teams in the league, playing an extra game and running a no-huddle offense that theoretically should give defenses extra trouble, the Bills have been flummoxed.
In fact, they have been on the field for more points against than points scored.
Granted, the Steelers are the defending Super Bowl champs and the Bills were without star receiver Terrell Owens for a third straight game. But a team that's under pressure to win this year needs to look better than this. They've even been playing with Marshawn Lynch, who will be suspended the first three games.
Bills first-teamers have played a total of 78 plays over 16 series, netting 269 yards. Their possessions have ended in nine punts, three interceptions, two fumbles, one field goal and halftime.
The average possession has lasted 4.9 plays and gained 16.8 yards.
- Hall of Fame Game against the Tennessee Titans: one series, nine plays, 50 net yards for an interception.
- Week 1 vs. the Chicago Bears: three series, 25 plays, 108 yards for punt, punt, field goal.
- Week 2 at the Green Bay Packers: five series, 24 plays, 50 yards for interception, fumble, punt, fumble, punt.
- Week 3 at the Steelers: seven series, 20 plays, 61 yards for punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, halftime, punt. The possession right before halftime was only one play for no yards, but it was a completed pass to Dominic Rhodes, who fumbled out of bounds.
Bills quarterback Trent Edwards was 6 of 13 for 31 yards and a disquieting interception Steelers linebacker James Farrior returned for a touchdown.
Two other notable stats from Saturday: The Bills' failed to convert any of their eight third downs, and their time of possession was 18:45. Not for first-team possessions, but for the whole game.
Three quick hits on the Buffalo Bills:
1. The offense's success will rely more on the offensive line than Terrell Owens.
Owens has received a lion's share of the attention. Bills fans are fascinated with the future Hall of Famer. They're not used to players with Owens' credentials showing up as free agents. His presence will help receiver Lee Evans immensely, perhaps unleashing offensive elements not seen since Jim Kelly was throwing to Andre Reed and James Lofton. But their new no-huddle offense won't work if the line doesn't come together in a hurry. All five projected starting linemen will be in different positions from last year. Left tackle Langston Walker has been uninspiring in camp and through two preseason games. Injury-prone quarterback Trent Edwards can't exploit his weapons if he's running for his life -- or leaning on crutches.
2. Buffalo should be fine at running back while Marshawn Lynch is suspended.
Not many teams can lose a Pro Bowl back and still maintain its options. Lynch, one of the hardest runners around, will miss the first three games because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for various misdeeds. The Bills have reinforcements. I wouldn't be surprised to find Fred Jackson among the league total-yardage leaders heading into Week 4. Jackson is an underrated back who also excels in the passing game. Behind him is Dominic Rhodes, who kept the Indianapolis Colts' afloat last year while Joseph Addai was sidelined. Of course, Jackson's and Rhodes' production will depend on the offensive line's ability to open holes. But whatever the Bills' record is after three games, we likely won't be saying "Everything would be different if Lynch hadn't been suspended."
3. Will the defensive line be a difference maker?
The Bills feature a formidable defensive tackle in Marcus Stroud, but they still were abysmal up front last year in their 4-3 alignment. They ranked 14th in team defense, but 22nd against the run. The only teams to record fewer sacks were the Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. But the Bills think they can improve their pass rush dramatically with the help of a healthy Aaron Schobel and rookie Aaron Maybin. Schobel, a two-time Pro Bowler, missed 11 games with a foot injury. Maybin, the 11th overall draft pick, missed camp and three preseason games because of contract issues. If either of those defensive ends make an impact -- don't hold your breath on the yearling Maybin finding his stride this year -- and the Bills can get anything that resembles first-round value out of defensive tackle John McCargo, their D-line rankings could rise big-time.
Here are five Bills observations from Fawcett Stadium:
|Matthew Emmons/US Presswire|
|Bills receiver Terrell Owens got involved early in Buffalo's Hall of Fame game loss to Tennessee.|
The Titans appeared to be the much sharper squad when their first- and second-teamers were on the field. The Bills opened training camp on July 25, making them the first in the NFL to break out the air horn, at least a week before 13 other clubs. The Titans got started on July 31.
Bills quarterback Trent Edwards had only one series and concluded it with an interception at the Titans' 7-yard line.
Tennessee seemed to come up with the big play when it needed one against Buffalo's top players. On the game's first drive, Titans coach Jeff Fisher called for a fake punt that rookie A.J. Trapasso executed exceptionally, hiding the ball behind his back as he swung his leg and then dashing up the left sideline for a 40-yard touchdown.
Titans quarterback Kerry Collins was 7 of 10 for 82 yards. Collins picked on second-year right cornerback Leodis McKelvin for 19 yards to convert a third-and-15 situation on an eventual touchdown drive.
"The third-and-15 was a critical down in that series," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "We can't let people off in that. The percentages are highly in our favor, and we just gave up a first down."
Early in the second quarter, the Bills were denied on third and fourth down from the Titans' 5-yard line. The Bills needed 2 yards for the first down on each snap.
"We've got to convert that and thought we had a chance to," Jauron said.
|Terrell Owens, the celebrity headliner on the first day of training camp, serves as a distraction from the numerous issues facing the Bills.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- On the first day of Buffalo Bills training camp, fans pressed their torsos up against the metal railing at St. John Fisher College to get the best possible look at a local attraction that, for the past few months, has been surpassed only by Niagara Falls.
For the first time since he signed in March, fans were able to behold the wonders of Terrell Owens in a Bills uniform. His every move was cheered. Each time he touched the ball -- even during casual warmup tosses on the sideline -- drew applause. They pleaded for autographs. They barked out chants, supplementing a popular refrain: "Let's go, Buf-fa-lo! Let's go, T.O.!"
The other 70 or so players were rendered afterthoughts. Owens, on the first day of camp, WAS the Buffalo Bills. He hadn't scored a touchdown, caught a pass, run a route or said something inflammatory yet. Owens, running around in chrome-bottomed Nike cleats, was all that existed.
And for the rest of the Bills, that should be a pleasant distraction.
The future Hall of Famer has diverted so much attention from myriad question marks surrounding his team.
The Bills have gone nine straight years without a playoff appearance. They went 0-6 against the AFC East last year. They have an injury-prone quarterback. Their miscreant Pro Bowl running back has been suspended the first three games. The fans generally loathe head coach Dick Jauron. The offensive line has been rearranged more than Tex Cobb's face. Rookie defensive end Aaron Maybin, the 11th overall pick, probably won't sign a contract any time soon.
Still, this year's season-ticket base will be the largest since Buffalo's Super Bowl years. The Bills have been able to market perennial hope, and this year's dreams are hitched to Owens, a player who makes the team nationally relevant for the first time since Doug Flutie was around.
But let's look deeper than the obvious storyline from Bills camp. Owens can't possibly fix everything.
|Joe Robbins/Getty Images|
|Langston Walker's transition from right tackle to left could be a key to the offensive line's performance.|
1. How will the Bills' reconstituted offensive line perform?
In the afternoon practice on the first day of training camp, Buffalo's offensive linemen conducted drills 10 feet in front of the railing that separated the most boisterous fans from the field. The throng gazed right past the most important players on the team so they could gawk at Owens and yell to him about how good his new toasted-oats cereal product is.
Buffalo will be as successful this year as its offensive line will allow.
The Bills had no choice but to trade Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, who held out right up until the regular-season opener last year. They were convinced the still-disgruntled Peters would boycott the team into the season, maybe miss several games, to make his point again. They dealt their best player to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Rather than look for veteran help to replace Peters, the Bills flopped right tackle Langston Walker, a career right tackle of no particular acclaim, to the left side. Right guard Brad Butler slid to right tackle. They signed Geoff Hangartner to play center. They drafted Eric Wood in the first round and Andy Levitre in the second round to be their guards.
All five linemen projected to start on opening day will be in different positions than last year, when they gave up the fifth-most sacks in the NFL.
2. Will the pass rush be significantly better this year?
Only three teams had fewer than Buffao's 28 sacks last year.
The Bills selected Maybin to bolster its anemic pass rush. Many were skeptical he would make an immediate impact because he was a one-year starter at Penn State who entered the draft a year early. His chances of being a significant contributor are lessening with each day he's not under contract.
But the main character here is two-time Pro Bowl end Aaron Schobel
. He played in only five games last year because of a foot injury. Schobel collected 26 sacks in 2005 and 2006, but dropped to 6.5 sacks in 2007 and 1.5 in his limited time last year.
3. What kind of impact will the no-huddle offense make?
|John David Mercer/US Presswire|
|Early on, Trent Edwards has looked good directing Buffalo's new no-huddle offense.|
If the first few days of training camp were any indication, the Bills' offense will be fun to watch -- win or lose. To maximize their weaponry both at receiver and in the backfield and perhaps mitigate the line's limitations, offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, a former Sam Wyche pupil, has gone no-huddle.
The Bills' first-team defense has had trouble keeping Owens and Lee Evans from getting behind them. Trent Edwards, criticized for his inability or unwillingness to go deep, has been hurling rainbows that are going for touchdowns.
Some close to the team, however, aren't convinced the Bills will use it throughout a game. The belief is that they'll start out in the no-huddle and use it as long as it works. If defenses don't cave in the first half, the conservative-minded Jauron might be prone to get more conventional.
Fred Jackson sounds like an everyman name. But there's a decent chance you'll know who he is, especially if you're a fantasy football enthusiast, a few weeks into the season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended running back Marshawn Lynch for the first three games. That will cede backfield duties to Jackson and Dominic Rhodes.
Jackson emerged from football oblivion. Undrafted out of Division III Coe College, he went to the arena bush leagues, then to NFL Europa and the Bills' practice squad. He has become one of the NFL's most underrated backs. He rushed for 571 yards last year with a 5.0 average, racking up 136 yards in place of an injured Lynch in the season finale. He caught 37 passes for 317 yards.
Newcomer to watch
Is there anybody else to consider other than Owens? We don't need to discuss the obvious, so let's pick the next in line.
Wood, a dominant center at Louisville, was drafted with the top pick the Bills received from the Eagles in the Peters trade. He will be learning a new position, but is confident it will be an easier transition from center to guard than any other position-to-position switch on the line.
Some consider the Bills a dark horse in the AFC East. They have the offensive firepower to make some noise, but have they improved enough to overcome their 0-6 division record last year? The Bills have gone 7-9 each season since Jauron arrived. It's foreseeable they could go 7-9 a fourth year in a row, but be much better than they've been. … Bills fans should hope second-year cornerback Leodis McKelvin is keeping his early camp performances in perspective. He has been getting flambéed by Owens and Evans on deep balls and getting his ankles broken by Owens' post-catch cuts on the underneath stuff. McKelvin's confidence probably is bruised, but he's squaring up against two of the game's best every day. … Edwards hasn't been able to stay healthy through his first two NFL seasons, which puts an emphasis on the backup. The Bills signed Cincinnati Bengals reserve Ryan Fitzpatrick to fill that role, but the Harvard grad has struggled. The no-huddle offense hums under Edwards, but when Fitzpatrick takes over, passes frequently don't find their mark. Third quarterback Gibran Hamdan has a chance to make a push for the No. 2 job. … The Bills are one of the NFL's deepest teams at receiver, but a rash of seemingly minor injuries has them trying out even more receivers. Steve Johnson, James Hardy, Felton Huggins and P.K. Sam have been sidelined. … The Demetrius Bell project continues to evolve. The son of former NBA great Karl Malone, drafted out of Northwestern State in the seventh round last year, didn't play a down last year. He has been seeing a healthy amount of reps at second-team left tackle and guard.
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Terrell Owens knows he's a big deal. He's reminded of it everywhere he goes, in everything he does.
But, relatively speaking, Owens is an even bigger deal in Western New York than he ever has been anywhere else.
Legends were forged in San Francisco before Owens arrived there. Philadelphia has seen its share of superstars. Icons have passed through Dallas for decades.
Aside from maybe O.J. Simpson, nobody in Buffalo sports history has embodied the combination of sports stardom and mainstream celebrity as T.O.
Each time Owens touched the ball Saturday morning during the Bills' opening training camp practice at St. John Fisher College in suburban Rochester, the crowd erupted. It was his debut in front of the fans, and they welcomed him like a hero.
They beseeched him for autographs afterward and exploded with the loudest ovation of the day when he obliged. The roar drowned out part of head coach Dick Jauron's news conference being held 50 yards away.
"I pinch myself sometimes," Owens said. "I've realized that I've had a following everywhere that I've been. I expected nothing different here. I know that the Buffalo fans are very, very fanatical. They're behind their team 100 percent, so coming out here I expected nothing less."
Owens has 951 receptions. His next will move him past Bills great Andre Reed for sixth place all-time. Owens has scored 141 touchdowns, the most of any active NFL player. He has his own reality television show. He's known around the world.
Add all of that to a team that hasn't been to the playoffs in nine seasons, and it's easy to see why fans are so euphoric over Owens.
Win or lose, he makes their team relevant again.
Even though Buffalo's top four draft choices were absent Saturday, almost every question posed to head coach Dick Jauron and quarterback Trent Edwards was about Owens' presence.
"He's one of many here, but he's a great example because -- let's face it -- we don't have anybody else that's caught 951 balls in the league," Jauron said.
Actually, all of the Bills with at least one career reception combined -- Lee Evans, Josh Reed, Roscoe Parrish, Steve Johnson, James Hardy, Derek Schouman, Derek Fine, Dominic Rhodes, Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson and Corey McIntyre -- have 997 receptions.
No wonder Owens received more cheers Saturday morning than the rest of the team put together.
"It definitely gives me an appreciation for who I am and what I've done throughout my career," Owens said. "It's a humbling situation. I know I'm a blessed individual and know that I have a lot to offer. I expect to bring some of those same things I brought to other teams. That's a lot of success, a lot of touchdowns and a lot of wins."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Pop quiz: Name the last National Football Conference team to beat the New England Patriots in the regular season?
If you said the Carolina Panthers, reward yourself by circling Dec. 13 on this year's calendar when the Panthers visit Gillette Stadium in a Week 14 duel.
Since a Sept. 18, 2005, loss to the host Panthers, the Patriots have treated the NFC like it's the Washington Nationals. New England has a 15-game nonconference winning streak. Still, last season's 4-0 romp through the NFC West could not secure New England a playoff berth.
The AFC East champion Miami Dolphins were 3-1 against the NFC West in 2008, and the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills were 2-2 in interconference play. For the Jets and Dolphins, those records were huge improvements over 0-for-4 marks versus the NFC East in 2007. The Bills were 1-3 in interconference play that season. What success can the Patriots and their AFC East brethren expect to have against the NFC South this fall? These factors might come into play:
|Rick Stewart/Getty Images|
|The Bills will play two of their interconference games without Marshawn Lynch.|
1. The Buffalo Bills are without Marshawn Lynch against two NFC South teams: The league suspended the Pro Bowl running back for the first three games of the season. The Bills play host to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2 and the New Orleans Saints in Week 3. The Bills have underrated backup Fred Jackson and capable free-agent acquisition Dominic Rhodes to fill Lynch's void. How those reserves perform against defenses that were below average against the run last season will be crucial to whether the Bills can get off to a good start in the AFC East race.
2. AFC East secondaries matching up with Drew Brees: The Saints' bombardier will go up against four generally pedestrian pass defenses. Each AFC East team will have at least one new starting cornerback this season and could have a new starting safety, too. Every team brought in veteran cornerback help, with the Patriots signing a pair and drafting another in the second round. The Dolphins drafted two cornerbacks within the first 61 picks. That's plenty of anecdotal evidence AFC East secondaries weren't exactly elite.
3. Tom Brady versus Matt Ryan: They won't be on the field at the same time, but you better believe these two quarterback archetypes will be the main story line when Atlanta Falcons icon Ryan, the pride of Boston College, returns to New England in Week 3. In the days leading up to the game, we'll hear an awful lot of comparisons between the two. Ryan's future will be projected against Brady's resume. There will be more to this game than the quarterbacks, but what a compelling duel it could be.
4. New England's offensive line against Carolina's pass rush: We'll know long before Week 14 whether Brady's reconstructive knee surgery has made him skittish about pressure, but the Panthers have one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushes, starring Julius Peppers. Even before Brady was hurt, he was known for hanging in the pocket for that extra beat and taking shots to deliver the ball. The Panthers recorded the ninth-most sacks in the league last season and drafted Florida State edge-rusher Everette Brown.
5. The Bills' dynamic passing attack against NFC South secondaries: Teams can't double cover Lee Evans anymore; not with Terrell Owens on the opposite side of the field. Aside from Tampa Bay, NFC South pass defenses were ordinary last year. The Buccaneers limited teams to fewer than 200 aerial yards a game and picked off 22 passes, but also surrendered 23 touchdown passes.
6. Coach Tony Sparano's Dolphins against Mike Smith's Falcons in Week 1: Two clubs under second-year coaches won't waste any time beginning their quests to prove they weren't playoff flukes last year. Former Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey helped the Falcons amass the sixth-most yardage in the NFL, but he'll have to contend with Joey Porter, the return of Jason Taylor and a tweaked defensive backfield that added Gibril Wilson.
7. The Jets' running game versus the Falcons in December: Jets rookie head coach Rex Ryan declared his intention to have an all-weather offense (i.e. hand off and plow ahead) for those critical games late in the year. Thomas Jones, Leon Washington and Shonn Greene will have the chance to do some damage in Week 15 against Atlanta in the Meadowlands. In 2008, the Falcons yielded more than 2,000 rushing yards, an average of 4.9 yards per carry.
Who benefits most? There are some real scheduling groaners for the AFC East in here. The Patriots play the Buccaneers in London. The Dolphins play three exhibition games against NFC South teams. In the regular season, they meet two NFC South teams in a five-day stretch. The Jets play three NFC South teams in four weeks, with the exception being the Bills in Toronto on a Thursday night. So who gets the best shake on the interconference deal? How about the Bills? They play their first two games without Lynch, but at least they're home. They visit Carolina in Week 7 and Atlanta in Week 16.