AFC East: Mark Anderson

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 4, 2013
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Travel to most NFL training camps, and this passing drill is the same: A ball boy snaps to a quarterback, who throws to a receiver practicing a specific route.

But make a stop at St. John Fisher College in upstate New York, site of the Buffalo Bills' training camp, and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel isn't receiving the ball from just another member of the equipment staff.

Instead, you'll see head coach Doug Marrone snapping it to Manuel.

It's appropriate, because the fate of Marrone, a former NFL offensive lineman, will be tied to the success of Manuel, the first quarterback chosen in April's draft.

Through his first week of an NFL training camp, Manuel has looked the part, avoiding the critical mistakes that rookie quarterbacks often make as the intensity of practice picks up.

Which raises the next point: These Bills want to play fast.

Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett installed a no-huddle offense last season while working under Marrone at Syracuse, and will bring the same concepts -- borrowed from the Bills' "K-gun" offense of the early 1990s -- to Buffalo.

As training camp rolls on, Manuel has been eased into the first-team offense in practice, and he appears comfortable running Hackett's up-tempo system. Having poise in practice is one thing, though, and expecting Manuel and Hackett, who was last in the NFL as a quality control coach with the Bills in 2009, to light up NFL defenses this season is probably asking too much.

The Bills want to bring Manuel along slowly, and there will be growing pains along the way. So despite the rookie's passing the first few tests of training camp, don't look for Marrone to accelerate the process too much.

But for now, it's so far, so good for the 16th overall pick out of Florida State.

"He's going to be the face of our franchise," general manager Doug Whaley said. "And it's not too big for him."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Bill WippertMario Williams was bothered by a wrist injury in 2012, and this year he has already missed time in training camp with a sore foot.
1. Can they stay healthy? When the Bills took the practice field for the first time last weekend, nearly the entire roster was able to participate in practice, leading Marrone to note afterward how the team was fortunate to begin camp that healthy. Yet defensive end Mario Williams was one of the few exceptions, watching from the sideline because of a sore foot. He later left camp to have it examined by doctors, and the Bills' highest-paid player had not returned to practice by Friday.

Last season, Williams dealt with a wrist injury that limited his productivity until he underwent a procedure during the bye week. He came back strong, finishing with 10.5 sacks. But the Bills need more out of him, and his latest injury isn't a good sign for the team.

Likewise for wide receiver Steve Johnson, who pulled up with a hamstring injury during Friday's practice, and could miss time this preseason. The Bills dealt with a number of injuries to key players last season -- tight end Scott Chandler and running back Fred Jackson among them -- and they haven't built enough depth on their roster to withstand the blow of losing a player like Johnson.

2. When does Byrd return? Safety Jairus Byrd remains unsigned and away from Bills training camp, another less-than-ideal situation for one of the team's top players. The Bills failed to reach a long-term deal with Byrd, who is the only franchise-tagged player in the NFL yet to sign his tender, by the July 15 deadline.

Ultimately, it would be surprising if Byrd doesn't report to the team by the start of the regular season. By doing so, he would earn a guaranteed $6.9 million, and still have the possibility of a long-term deal come next March.

The question is if the Bills can persuade Byrd to return earlier, forgo the risk of injury and use the preseason to get acclimated to the new defensive scheme. But one way or another, these situations tend to work themselves out, and Pro Bowl-caliber players like Byrd quickly get back up to speed.

3. Can Pettine turn around the defense? It didn't take long last season for the Bills' porous defense to be exposed. The New York Jets, owners of the NFL's 28th-ranked scoring offense by season's end, hung 48 points on Buffalo in the season opener. Three weeks later, the New England Patriots erased a 21-7 third-quarter deficit to come away from Orchard Park with a 52-28 win, lighting up the Bills for 580 total yards.

Such performances, especially against division opponents, will drown the Bills again this season if new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine can't turn things around. Pettine is known for blitz-heavy schemes that pressure opposing defenses, but his defensive remake will also have to address a run defense that allowed opponents 145.8 yards per game last season, second-worst in the NFL.

Pettine has several pieces to work with, including Byrd, Williams and top cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The key will be filling holes elsewhere. Can rookie Kiko Alonso step in right away at inside linebacker? Can former third overall pick Marcell Dareus benefit from a fresh start and contribute along the defensive line? And where does the pass rush come from if Williams goes down with another injury? These are just a few of the questions facing Pettine and his staff.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Beyond the early positive signs from Manuel, the Bills' offense has the potential to be explosive, especially if healthy. They addressed deficiencies behind Johnson at wide receiver by drafting Robert Woods (second round) and Marquise Goodwin (third round). They have one of the NFL's better running backs in C.J. Spiller and a receiving threat at tight end in Chandler. The offensive line could prove problematic, but Hackett's fast-paced system could help take pressure off blockers.

Having not made the playoffs since 1999, the Bills' annual problem is getting over the hump in their division, which includes defeating New England. They will host the Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the Sept. 8 season opener, which is perfect timing for Buffalo. Fans will be excited, parts of Hackett's offense will yet to be revealed on film and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski may not be ready to play. It will be a challenge for Buffalo, but kicking the season off by beating New England would be big.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The NFL saw three rookie quarterbacks take their teams to the playoffs last season, but it's hardly been an annual occurrence. Manuel will need to exceed expectations if he is to repeat the successes of Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck from last season. It won't doom his career if Manuel struggles for stretches this season (assuming he becomes the starter) and the results for the Bills follow suit. It's just the way things go in the NFL, and improvement can take time.

Beyond that, the Bills have a top-heavy roster that will require more than one season under Whaley to develop depth across positions. The offensive line lacks starting-quality players at at least one position, there are question marks behind Chandler at tight end and the defensive line includes several underachieving, younger players. The rigors of an NFL schedule may prove too difficult to overcome for the weak points on the roster.

OBSERVATION DECK

[+] EnlargeEJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb
AP Photo/David DupreyThe Bills drafted EJ Manuel (left) in the first round, but Kevin Kolb has been ahead of him in taking most of the first-team reps at quarterback during camp.
" For all the talk about Manuel, it has been veteran Kevin Kolb taking the majority of the first-team reps at quarterback in camp. The Bills have dismissed talk of Kolb being a "placeholder" while Manuel adjusts to the NFL, but Kolb will have to step it up if he wants a legitimate shot at holding onto his role as the starter. He has struggled, and would hardly inspire confidence if under center on opening day.

" Spiller had a breakout season in 2012, but don't overlook Jackson, who could create an impressive one-two punch at running back. Jackson is 32 and coming off a knee injury that lingered last season, but is just two years removed from averaging 5.5 yards per carry in 2011. The Bills have used two-running back sets frequently in practice, and between Spiller, Jackson and Tashard Choice, they have backfield threats that will force defenses to adjust.

" The battle at wide receiver behind Johnson has several candidates, and the Bills haven't been afraid to throw different players into the mix with the first-team offense. From this standpoint, Goodwin has performed better in camp than Woods, who struggled with drops through the first few practices. Undrafted rookie Da'Rick Rogers figures to factor into the mix as well. It's no coincidence the Bills opened their first practice of training camp with a deep-ball drill; it's a receiver group that has the potential to take the top off of opposing defenses.

" Marrone has routinely named Jamie Blatnick and Kourtnei Brown when mentioning pass-rushers on his defense, especially following the surprising release of Mark Anderson shortly before training camp. But it may be more out of default than anything: the Bills lack depth at the outside linebacker position. Blatnick spent most of last season out of football after being released from Denver's practice squad, while it took Brown until Week 14 to hook onto Washington's practice squad. It's possible either player could emerge, but if Marrone has practice-squad-level players on the field to provide pass-rush during the regular season, the Bills will be in trouble.

" It's a similar situation along the defensive line, where the Bills are searching for options both alongside and behind Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. The top option is Dareus, but the Bills will need more quality play out of him if he takes 50 percent or more of defensive snaps. Other possibilities include more players who have largely underachieved in the NFL, including Alex Carrington and Alan Branch.

" The absence of Byrd in practice has been alleviated by an impressive start by Aaron Williams, the team's second-round pick in 2011. He struggled at cornerback through his first two seasons, but his switch to safety looks to be paying off early in camp. He has been around the ball and come down with interceptions.
Remember the Buffalo Bills’ 2012 offseason? That was the year Buffalo went on a rare spending spree and signed multiple players to big-money contracts. It led to plenty of optimism, but the Bills fizzled out with a 6-10 season.

On Tuesday, Buffalo's 2012 free-agent class suffered its first casualty. The Bills cut defensive end Mark Anderson just one year after signing a $19.5 million contract. Anderson joined Mario Williams, who signed for $100 million, as Buffalo's bookend free agents in 2012.

Cutting Anderson is not a surprise, considering he recorded just 12 tackles and one sack with Buffalo last season. He was injured and underperformed in Buffalo. Anderson also wasn't a natural fit in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's scheme. It didn't take long for Buffalo to admit signing Anderson was a mistake.

But here is the next question: Could Anderson return to the reigning AFC East champion New England Patriots?

Anderson had arguably the best season of his career with New England in 2011 when he recorded 10 sacks. That led to Buffalo signing Anderson to a large contract. Anderson proved that he fits in New England's scheme, and the team lost depth on the defense line this offseason after cutting Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love. Anderson could be a decent option in a backup role.

But a return to New England would require Anderson to accept a cheap contract. It's too early to say if Anderson is willing to do so, especially if he gets interest from several other teams.
The AFC East blog continues its "Show and Prove" series for the division in 2013.

Next up we take a look at Buffalo Bills defensive end Mark Anderson.

2012 stats: 12 tackles, one sack

What he must prove: Anderson must prove that he is worthy of the free-agent contract he received from the Bills in 2012. Anderson, who came off a 10-sack season with the New England Patriots in 2011, signed a four-year, $19.5 million contract with the Bills last year but had an injury-plagued season. He played in just five games due to a knee injury in 2012. This is a make-or-break year for Anderson. If he cannot produce halfway through his four-year contract, the Bills could be forced to go in another direction.

Walker’s 2013 outlook: Anderson was a risky signing from the beginning for Buffalo. His 10-sack season with New England in 2011 had "flash in the pan" written all over it. Anderson only registered eight sacks in his previous four seasons combined. Buffalo needs as many pass-rushers as possible under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. But I am not sure Anderson is the type of player the Bills can consistently rely on this season. Despite his big contract, Anderson is probably best suited as a pass-rusher off the bench and a part-time starter if there are injuries on Buffalo’s defense.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at key players for each AFC East team who are coming back from injuries:

New England Patriots: There is no bigger injury concern in the AFC East this offseason than Rob Gronkowski. The Pro Bowl tight end has had three surgeries within the past year to fix his broken arm, and he is scheduled to have a fourth surgery next week. The timeline for Gronkowski’s return is approximately 10 weeks. That will put Gronkowski on pace for training camp if there are no setbacks. Gronkowski is arguably the best tight end in the NFL when healthy, and he’s certainly New England’s best red zone threat. After losing starting receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd this offseason, the Patriots really need a healthy and productive Gronkowski to thrive on offense this year.

New York Jets: It’s easy to forget about Santonio Holmes. Due to a serious foot injury, the former Super Bowl MVP was virtually nonexistent last season after playing just four games. The Jets’ passing game was in shambles as a result. But Holmes returns this season as New York’s No. 1 receiver and has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. The Jets are rebuilding and don't have much talent on offense. There will also be a four-way quarterback competition between Mark Sanchez, rookie Geno Smith, Greg McElroy and Matt Simms. Holmes is one of the few players the Jets have on offense who has consistently produced throughout his career. It’s unknown if Holmes will return to his pre-injury form, but he should be better than any receiving threat the Jets have.

Miami Dolphins: One year ago, cornerback Brent Grimes was coming off a Pro Bowl season and viewed as one of the up-and-coming stars at his position. But a season-ending Achilles injury in 2012 dropped his stock, and now Grimes is trying to get back to his Pro Bowl form in Miami. The Dolphins signed Grimes to a one-year “show me” contract this offseason. No team was willing to make a multiyear commitment while Grimes still recovers from his torn Achilles. The Dolphins are taking a risk that Grimes will be 100 percent before the start of the regular season. He’s projected to be Miami’s No. 1 cornerback. The Dolphins were ranked 27th against the pass in 2012 and desperately need him. He also will provide veteran leadership to Miami’s two rookie corners: Jamar Taylor and Will Davis.

Buffalo Bills: Mark Anderson has become the forgotten defensive player in Buffalo. Just one year ago, the Bills made Anderson one of their big free-agent signings. But a knee injury forced Anderson to miss 11 games, and he recorded just 12 tackles and one sack. The Bills brought in Anderson to add a pass rush. He had 10 sacks with the Patriots in 2011 and aims to get healthy and return to form under new Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Buffalo needs as many pass-rushers as possible to assist Mario Williams, who led the Bills with 10.5 sacks last season.

 

Morning take: Tom Brady on a tear

November, 9, 2012
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Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC East: Morning take: Brady is 35 and isn't slowing down. As long as he stays healthy, the Patriots are in contention.
Morning take: Buffalo is already hurting at defensive end. Mark Anderson will not play against New England, and now Kelsay is dinged.
Morning take: Miami has an impressive 22-game streak of holding tailbacks under 100 yards. Johnson is the type of player who can break a 70-yard run to the house.
Morning take: The Jets get the most media attention. But I think most people knew that this wasn’t a great team. The Jets are playing at most people’s expectations.

Morning take: Tannehill and QB class

November, 6, 2012
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Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC East: Morning take: Tannehill doesn’t put up the gaudy numbers, but he’s winning games and keeping Miami in contention. That’s all that matters for the Dolphins.
  • The New England Patriots are not expected to face former defensive end Mark Anderson of the Buffalo Bills.
Morning take: Anderson (knee) was targeting this Patriots game to return, but he’s still ailing. With Mario Williams’ inconsistent play, not many people are talking about Anderson, another free-agent signing, not staying healthy.
Morning take: Backup corner Leodis McKelvin will get another shot to start. McKelvin is a former first-round pick who hasn’t been able to put it together.
Morning take: Hurricane Sandy greatly impacted the region -- and the Jets are no different. Coach Rex Ryan still doesn't have power at home and is working to recover like many others.

Updating AFC East injuries

October, 11, 2012
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Let's take a look at key injuries this week in the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills: Starting defensive end Mark Anderson will be out Sunday and indefinitely with a knee injury. This is a big blow to Buffalo, which is not getting the pass rush it expected. Bills starting defensive tackle Kyle Williams also missed his second straight practice Thursday, which is a concern. Williams told the team website that he will play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins continue to have concussion issues with running back Daniel Thomas, who missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday. This is a concern, considering he’s suffered two concussions already this season. Look for Miami rookie running back Lamar Miller to get increased playing time Sunday against the St. Louis Rams. Cornerback Richard Marshall also missed his second straight practice with a back injury. His chances look slim to play on Sunday. Dolphins starting running back Reggie Bush (knee) and defensive back Nolan Carroll (Achilles) practiced in a limited role Thursday.

New York Jets: The Jets are banged up. Backup safety Eric Smith injured his knee in practice this week, and Jets coach Rex Ryan said Smith will not play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. The good news is tight end Dustin Keller (hamstring) and receiver Stephen Hill (hamstring) are both practicing and expected to play. That should boost the offense. Ryan also is optimistic about Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold (ankle) playing. Defensive linemen Sione Pouha (back) most likely will miss Sunday’s game with a bad back. Pouha hasn’t practiced Wednesday or Thursday.

New England Patriots: Backup receiver Julian Eldelman returned to practice Thursday. He’s been out for about two weeks with a hand injury. Starting safety Steve Gregory (hip) missed practiced on Wednesday and Thursday and looks doubtful to play against the Seattle Seahawks. Backup linebacker Tracy White (foot) also missed his second day of practice.

More bad news for Bills' defense

October, 10, 2012
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The Buffalo Bills' struggling defense lost one of its big free-agent acquisitions this week. Starting defensive end Mark Anderson will be out "indefinitely," Bills general manager Buddy Nix told the team's website on Wednesday.

Buffalo signed Anderson and fellow defensive end Mario Williams this offseason to improve its pass rush. So far, neither player has produced. The high-paid duo with contracts totaling more than $100 million have combined for just 2.5 sacks in five games. Anderson had 10 sacks last season for the New England Patriots.

The good news is Buffalo has depth at defensive end. The Bills will turn to veteran and former starter Chris Kelsay, who is one of the longest-tenured players on the team. Kelsay has three tackles and zero sacks on the season as a backup.

Buffalo’s defense needs someone to step up. The Bills have allowed 97 points in the past two games, which has drawn the ire of Bills fans, Nix and head coach Chan Gailey.

The Bills (2-3) will play at the Arizona Cardinals (4-1) on Sunday.

Stock Watch: AFC East

October, 2, 2012
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Let's take a look at who is rising and falling in the AFC East:

Falling

1. Buffalo Bills defense: What...was...that? That is one way to sum up the performance of Buffalo's revamped defense in a 52-28 loss to the New England Patriots. The Bills allowed 35 straight points and seven consecutive scoring drives (six touchdowns, one field goal). Buffalo's defense looked helpless against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Perhaps the most disappointing thing is Buffalo's defense was expected to be the strength of the team. The Bills spent more than $100 million on defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson and a first-round pick on cornerback Stephon Gilmore. None of these acquisitions made an impact on Sunday.

2. New York Jets: Head coach Rex Ryan is quick to point out that the Jets remain in first place in the AFC East. Ryan is correct. The Jets (2-2) have the same record as the Patriots (2-2) and Bills (2-2), but New York is the only team with two division wins. Yet, the Jets do not play like a first-place team. New York's only dominant win was in Week 1 against Buffalo. After that, it's been decisive losses and an ugly, overtime win over the rebuilding Dolphins. Don't expect the Jets to be in first place for long.

3. AFC East kickers: What's gotten into Stephen Gostkowski and Dan Carpenter lately? These are two of the most consistent kickers in the AFC who have suddenly lost their way. Both kickers have combined for six missed field goals already this season. I watched Gostkowski shank a kick wide right on his first attempt and wide left on his second attempt against Buffalo. He looked totally confused. Carpenter continues to miss big kicks that could have put the Dolphins in the win column. He missed another attempt Sunday in an overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Are these short-term struggles or a trend of what to expect this season?

Rising

1. Brian Hartline, Dolphins receiver: Remember when Hartline was on the roster bubble in Miami? That seems like a while ago now that Hartline is tearing it up. He is the surprise league leader in receiving yards after his 253-yard performance against the Cardinals. Hartline wasn't even a starter in Week 1. Now, his stock is way up.

2. Brandon Bolden, Patriots running back: Bolden was another player on the roster bubble in training camp. He was an undrafted rookie trying to make the reigning AFC champs. It appeared to be a long shot, but Bolden impressed the coaching staff. He got his first big shot against Buffalo and led the team with 137 rushing yards and a touchdown. Bolden is proof that it doesn't matter where you come from. If you can play, a team will find you.

3. Cameron Wake, Dolphins defensive end: Miami's front seven is a headache to play against. The Cardinals found that out the hard way when they couldn't run the ball and Wake had 4.5 sacks of Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb. Wake at times can get his sacks in bunches. An honorable mention also goes to rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who threw for 431 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.

AFC East Stock Watch

September, 27, 2012
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Let's see who's stock is rising and falling in the AFC East.

Falling

1. New York Jets secondary: The stock of New York’s defensive backs took a huge blow with the season-ending injury to Darrelle Revis. This changes the way New York has to play defense, particularly on the back end. The Jets will play less man-to-man defense and a lot more zone. Revis also patched up the fact that New York’s safeties aren’t good in coverage. Opponents will test the Jets’ secondary, starting with Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

2. Devin McCourty, Patriots cornerback: McCourty looked much like he did last season in a 31-30 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith lit up the Patriots for six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns, and most of the big players were against McCourty. He also had a big pass-interference penalty for 27 yards to set up the Ravens’ game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. This is McCourty's third year and injuries are no longer an excuse. He needs to have a good year, or it’s time to doubt if McCourty will ever get back to the Pro Bowl form his rookie year.

[+] EnlargeNew York's Tim Tebow
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceTim Tebow has not had success running routes for the Jets.
3. Tim Tebow, Jets quarterback: Remember the super-secret Tebow packages the Jets were keeping under wraps this summer? Those packages have done nothing in the regular season. Tebow’s Wildcat rushes aren’t doing much, and having Tebow run receiving routes is comical. A pass bounced off Tebow’s helmet against the Dolphins. If the Jets don’t know how to use Tebow, they shouldn’t force it. It’s OK for Tebow to just be a No. 2 quarterback. Why disrupt the offense trying to force Tebow in?

Rising

1. Wes Welker, Patriots receiver: It’s been a tough start to the season for Welker. But he deserves a lot of credit for hanging in. After getting his reps taken away in favor of backup Julian Edelman, Welker stayed ready for his opportunity and played big in a loss to Baltimore. Welker caught a season-high eight passes for 142 yards. Expect Welker to be a bigger part of the offense now that tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle) is on the shelf.

2. Bills defensive line: For the first time this season, Buffalo’s much publicized defensive line completely dominated an opponent. Defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson and tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus clogged the running lanes and pressured the quarterback. Buffalo will be hard to beat if the defensive line plays this way every week. Buffalo allowed just 33 rushing yards to Cleveland and sacked Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden four times.

3. Santonio Holmes, Jets receiver: Holmes returned back to the lowest point of his career and had a triumphant return to Miami. Holmes had nine catches for 147 yards in New York’s overtime win. His 38-yard catch set up New York’s game-winning field goal. Holmes was benched in Miami last year for arguing with teammates, but showed resilience to lead the Jets over the Dolphins in their next meeting. The Jets will need more big games from Holmes the rest of the season.
Here are seven notes and observations from Week 3 in the AFC East.

  • I know it’s early to think about contracts, but the injury to Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis brings up an interesting scenario. Revis clearly wants a new contract next year and considered holding out this summer. Now, he played just three games and will be coming off major knee surgery. Will Revis demand a new extension in 2013 to become one of the NFL's highest-paid players? If so, will the Jets accommodate Revis or tell him to play another year under the old contract to prove he's the same dominant player? This is a precarious situation that will need to be ironed out by Revis and the Jets next year. This also is why players need to get paid when they have the leverage. Revis lost a lot of leverage with this injury.
  • The numbers don't look good for New York without Revis. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Jets’ opponent completion percentage goes up from 54.1 to 62.5 the past two seasons when Revis is not on the field. The Jets also have allowed five touchdowns and recorded zero interceptions without Revis in that span. With Revis on the field the past two years, the Jets have 23 interceptions and allowed 15 passing touchdowns.
  • [+] EnlargeTim Tebow
    AP Photo/Lynne SladkyTim Tebow definitely won't take Bill Belichick and the Patriots by surprise.
    I'm not sure the Jets need Tim Tebow right now, especially if they still don't know how to use him. Much of the gimmicks they have come up with have not worked. Tebow ran two times for zero yards in Sunday's win over the Miami Dolphins. He also played tight end/H-back and had a pass bounce off his helmet. The only real contribution Tebow made was a successful fake punt on fourth down. Mark Sanchez doesn’t need to throw to Tebow. If that’s the best the Jets can come up with, Tebow is better off on the sidelines strictly as the No. 2 quarterback.
  • This is the time I want to see more growth from Miami Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He continues to show flashes in three career starts. But I'm most concerned with Tannehill throwing just one passing touchdown in three games. He's on pace for a little more than five passing touchdowns this season, which won’t cut it. Miami doesn’t need Tannehill to take over games. But the Dolphins need a little more now that he is one month into the season. Miami won’t beat the undefeated Arizona Cardinals (3-0) on the road this week without solid quarterback play.
  • Perhaps what was most interesting about the Ravens’ win over the Patriots was how Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco outplayed New England’s Tom Brady in the clutch. Flacco was nearly flawless in the fourth quarter, throwing for an astounding 161 yards, one touchdown and had a 99.1 QBR. Brady struggled with just 41 yards and a 35.7 QBR in the fourth quarter. Some of it had to do with home-field advantage. But there is no doubt that Flacco outplayed Brady for the second straight game and this time it resulted in a close win.
  • Patriots coach Bill Belichick was wrong for grabbing a referee after the loss. Belichick most likely will be fined for the incident, especially after the league sent a memo last week warning teams to respect the officials. But this is another example of frustration spilling over. The NFL needs to get this situation fixed so it won’t make national headlines every week.
  • The Buffalo Bills got disruptive play from both of their big free-agent additions in Sunday's win over the Cleveland Browns. Bills defensive end Mario Williams and Mark Anderson were paid more than $100 million to be bookends on defense. The pair had their best game of the year by combining for 2.5 sacks and three additional hits on the quarterback. Williams and Anderson were constantly in the face of Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Defensive end Mario Williams will make his much-anticipated Buffalo Bills debut Sunday against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Buffalo paid Williams $100 million to make a big impact, and Week 1 appears to be a favorable matchup on paper.

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Scott BoehmMario Williams will make his debut for Buffalo against a questionable Jets offensive line.
Williams, a two-time Pro Bowler, will face a Jets offensive line that was shaky in the preseason. New York has played musical chairs at right tackle and will start relative unknown Austin Howard, who will see a lot of Williams on Sunday.

Can the Jets keep Williams off starting quarterback Mark Sanchez? Howard beat out former Jet Wayne Hunter for the starting job and could need a lot of assistance from his running backs and tight ends to block Williams on Sunday.

"We're expecting Austin to play well against someone who is very talented," Sanchez said this week. "A guy like Mario Williams, he’s a game-changing type player. It’s important to block him up and get rid of the football."

Buffalo's defensive line of Williams, Mark Anderson, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus is one of the most formidable in the NFL. The Bills are taking the approach of trying to dominate in the trenches this year.

"We are trying to rush four straight and get it done," Mario Williams said this week. "The biggest thing is we have some pretty good guys over here on this side of the ball that can get after the quarterback. We just want to go out and put pressure with four. That is the goal. I think that is what anybody’s goal is actually. If you can put pressure with four, you have a lot better chance at winning games."

An interesting wrinkle is former Bills draft bust Aaron Maybin is simulating Mario Williams in practice for New York this week.

Maybin was not popular in Buffalo because he underperformed, but the former first-round pick has been much improved since joining the Jets. Maybin tied for the Jets lead with six sacks last year and is doing his best to prepare Howard and the Jets' offensive line.

"I'm pretty much faster than him," Maybin said laughing. "For him, somebody that’s 300 pounds, to be able to move at that speed, is pretty ridiculous. It’s hard to really simulate that size moving at that speed. But at least if they can see somebody like myself out there during the week, it will have them a little bit more prepared for how fast things are going to be moving in the game."
The Buffalo Bills spent more than $100 million in free agency on defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. They also had a former starter and veteran holdover -- Chris Kelsay -- as the first player off the bench.

That made it much easier for Buffalo to turn the lights out on defensive end Shawne Merriman.

The Bills cut the former Pro Bowler on Monday. The move isn't a surprise. Merriman was never the same player after back-to-back, season-ending Achilles injuries. He lost the explosive burst that made him a once-dominant player with the San Diego Chargers.

Buffalo took a risk that Merriman could get healthy and become the "Lights Out" player he was several years ago -- or at least close to it. That never came to fruition, and the Bills decided to cut ties.

Buffalo's pass rush was horrendous last season, in part, because the Bills relied on an injured Merriman with few pass-rushers behind him. Merriman, if healthy, can still be an asset to an NFL team. But he was no longer a needed commodity in Buffalo.
The reigning AFC champion New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills will host their preseason openers Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins, respectively.

Here are four things to watch for in these exhibition games:

No. 1: Patriots' defense

Analysis: New England’s defense, ranked 31st last season, will take the field for the first time in 2012. The last time we saw this group, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was carving up the Patriots in the Super Bowl. New England invested a lot of draft picks and free-agent dollars into this defense. Expect to see several new faces, such as first-round picks Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones, and free-agent signings Steve Gregory and Bobby Carpenter. The Patriots’ starting defense will get a good test against Saints Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees, who performed well against New England during joint practices this week.

No. 2: Who will emerge at running back?

Analysis: Expect the Patriots to give a lot of carries to their young running backs Thursday night. Second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are competing for the starting job vacated by former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Ridley and Vereen bring different skills to the table. So far, Ridley has looked the best in training camp. But this battle will be won in the preseason games. Therefore, one of these young tailbacks must perform well to separate himself.

No. 3: Debut of Buffalo's revamped defensive line

Analysis: Buffalo’s starters may only play a few series. But it will be a good chance to see how the Bills’ new-look and dynamic defensive line is coming along. Stud defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were joined by big free-agent signings Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. This group has the potential to be one of the top defensive lines in the NFL. Washington will provide a good test in the debut of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. He is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league. So if Buffalo’s defense can pressure Griffin and keep him at bay, it can corral just about any quarterback.

No. 4: Who will step up as Buffalo's No. 2 receiver?

Analysis: If Buffalo has a legit No. 2 receiver, it’s time for that player to come forward. The Bills need someone to be a threat opposite Steve Johnson, who will face plenty of double teams this year. There have been mixed results in training camp. Different players have flashed but no receiver has shown enough consistency. Receivers such as Marcus Easley, Donald Jones and rookie T.J. Graham need to step up. Performing in the preseason is the quickest way to impress Buffalo’s coaching staff.

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 1, 2012
8/01/12
11:30
AM ET
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey are not afraid.

Both know this is a huge year in Buffalo. On paper, this is the best Bills team Gailey has coached and the best group Nix has put together. Many are expecting a playoff year from the Bills, who haven't made the postseason in 13 years.

This is new territory for Buffalo. For more than a decade, the Bills have been lovable losers. They finished 6-10 and last in the AFC East in 2011. But a stellar offseason has breathed new life into the franchise and created new expectations.

"We're not backing off from [expectations]. We expect to win and we expect to contend," Nix told the AFC East blog. "I think sometimes when you're afraid to say you expect that is because you're preparing yourself to lose. We're not afraid to say it. We've laid some groundwork for two years, and we're to the point now where we need to take the next step."

The groundwork included landing the top free agent not named Peyton Manning: defensive end Mario Williams. Buffalo also signed 10-sack defensive end Mark Anderson, re-signed No. 1 receiver Steve Johnson and drafted highly touted cornerback Stephon Gilmore and potential starting left tackle Cordy Glenn.

Buffalo did a great job putting a deep and talented roster together. The front office bought quality groceries. Now, it's time for Gailey and his coaching staff to cook a good meal.

"That's exactly right," Gailey said, responding to the metaphor. "That's my job: to get us to a winning program and playoffs and a championship."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/David DupreyMario Williams, the Bills' largest contract acquisition in franchise history, has some high expectations to live up to in his first year in Buffalo.
1. Will Mario Williams live up to top billing? Williams and Gailey have a lot in common. Both are under pressure to produce in 2012. But Williams is also under the microscope due to the $100 million contract ($50 million guaranteed) he signed in March, the biggest contract in Bills history.

With that comes the expectation of double-digit sacks and game-changing plays. That is what Williams does best, and he said he's "ecstatic" to wreak havoc in Buffalo this year. But Williams, a former Houston Texan, is returning from a season-ending pectoral injury and must stay healthy.

Williams certainly looks the part. He checked in at 292 pounds and is a mountain of muscle. He adds an intimidating presence to the Bills' defense.

In many ways, the Bills have built their defense around Williams. They switched back to a 4-3 scheme, which better suits Williams' strengths. Buffalo will plug Anderson in on the other side to take some of the pressure off Williams.

2. Will Ryan Fitzpatrick be consistent? Fitzpatrick’s career has been marked with inconsistency. He is one of the streakiest quarterbacks in the NFL, one who can get really hot or really cold at any moment. Fitzpatrick led the NFL with 23 interceptions last season.

Bills quarterbacks coach David Lee believes the streakiness is due to inconsistent fundamentals. Lee and Fitzpatrick worked extensively on mechanics this offseason to reduce the number of bad games.

"At this point I feel like it is easy to have better mechanics, but it is when you get into the games that it is really going to be the test for me," Fitzpatrick said. "And not just Week 1 through Week 5. It is going to be the whole season."

Fitzpatrick's streakiness was on display in practice Tuesday. On one play in team drills, he threw a beautiful deep ball to receiver Derek Hagan for a touchdown. Fitzpatrick then threw an interception into coverage on the next play.

By nature, Fitzpatrick is a gunslinger. But reduced turnovers will put the defense in better position and it could produce more wins for the Bills. A lot is riding on Fitzpatrick this season. The Bills recently gave him a $59 million contract, and it's time to prove he can lead a franchise.

3. Can Buffalo win in the AFC East? The biggest thorn in the side of the Bills has been their division rivals. Buffalo is just 2-10 against the AFC East the past two years.

The Bills can't quite put a finger on the reason. Part of it was inconsistency, part was lack of toughness. Another part was missed opportunities.

"They were better than us, but we gotta change that," Nix said candidly. "We hadn’t measured up in the two years we’d been here, even though if we could’ve stayed healthy I thought we could’ve been in contention at the end. I felt all along we could win nine or 10 games if we could keep everybody healthy. But we didn’t have a lot of depth anyway, and the ones we lost were our best leaders."

The gap between the New England Patriots and everyone else in the AFC East appears wide. No team outside of New England finished with a winning record last year. However, the Bills are confident they did enough this offseason to close the gap. Part of that confidence is due to splitting with New England last season.

"We still feel like we should win the division -- every team does," Gailey said. "Miami feels that way. The Jets feel that way. The Patriots feel that way. That's the goal going in."

Reason for optimism

Buffalo's defensive line should be one of the best in the NFL. Defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are paired with defensive ends Mario Williams and Anderson. That's a lot of money and high draft picks invested in rushing the quarterback and winning in the trenches.

But the starting defensive linemen aren't the only quality players. Buffalo has a deep bench, led by backup defensive ends Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman and backup defensive tackle Dwan Edwards. The rotation along the defensive line should wear down many opposing offensive lines.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
AP Photo/David DupreyStarting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has the position locked up, while Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen fight it out for the No. 2 spot.
"I feel like everybody on our defensive line could be a starter one way or the other, whether it is here or somewhere else," Mario Williams said. "Our competition level is extremely high. Every day we are pushed and we push each other. We hold each other accountable. I think that is the biggest thing."

Reason for pessimism

Buffalo is a team still learning how to win and is fighting plenty of bad history. As noted, it's been 13 years since Buffalo qualified for the postseason, a playoff run that was ended by the Music City Miracle.

It takes a lot of focus, maturity and consistency to win throughout a 16-game season. Past Bills teams lacked those traits. Once things went downhill, it was too easy for Buffalo to fall back into the "same old Bills" mentality.

Buffalo had a little taste of success last year. The Bills started 5-2 and were in first place in the AFC East. But things turned sour quickly and the losing snowballed. Buffalo lost eight of its last nine games and finished last in the division.

The Bills were the unexpected media darlings of the NFL for a couple weeks before things fell apart.

"You learn how to take that with a grain of salt, because it’s what you do on Sundays that count," Gailey said. "I hope we learned that lesson. I hope we learned not to let that affect our play and our thought processes in any way."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bills said they have a better plan for tailback C.J. Spiller this season. He was mostly ignored as a running back until starter Fred Jackson was put on injured reserve with a broken leg. But Spiller, a former first-round pick, is getting more carries in practice and looks sharp heading into his third season. He broke a couple of big runs in Tuesday's practice. Expect Spiller to get more carries this season, but it's still going to be a major challenge taking Jackson off the field.
  • The early reviews are in, and Gilmore looks legit. He's fluid and a good athlete. But perhaps the best thing about Gilmore, the No. 10 overall pick in the draft, is his competitiveness. Gilmore has lined up against Johnson, Buffalo's No. 1 receiver, at every chance in practice. The rookie wants to go against the best the team has to offer, and at times things have gotten physical between the two. Gilmore might already be Buffalo's best cornerback.
  • Speaking of cornerbacks, I would be surprised if longtime Bills corner Terrence McGee makes this team. McGee has been a leader and a consummate professional in Buffalo for nine years. But a youth movement at cornerback and many injuries could mean McGee's days are numbered. He's missed at least five games in each of the past three seasons. A season-ending knee injury forced McGee to miss 10 games in 2011 and he's still not 100 percent. He could bring leadership and depth to the secondary when healthy, but he may not get enough time on the field in camp or the preseason to show he's worthy of making the 53-man roster.
  • The Bills are definitely a bigger team. They have 23 players on their roster who weigh 300 pounds or more; at 292 pounds, just misses making the 300-pound club. Not all are going to make the team, but Buffalo has made it a point to get quality depth in the trenches.
  • I didn’t really see much separation between the backup quarterbacks. Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen are battling for the No. 2 spot, and the loser of this battle may not make the team because Brad Smith also is getting a lot of work at quarterback. Young and Thigpen made some good and bad throws Tuesday. This duel likely will be decided in the preseason.

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