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Talking points: Catching up with the Bills


blog by Ben Kirst  • 

The main topic of sports conversation around Western New York seems to be the composition of the Buffalo Sabres’ roster and if, when or how general manager Darcy Regier should be tarred and feathered in Niagara Square. Congratulations, sports media: I am officially sick of the Sabres three months before the start of the season.

Hey, we still have a football team! Yes, they have been awful for a decade and counting, but the Buffalo Bills are still a National Football League franchise and we are staring down the barrel of the 2013 preseason—training camp starts in three weeks out at St. John Fisher and we’ll get our first glimpses of Doug Marrone, E.J. Manuel, Kevin Kolb, Robert Woods, Manny Lawson and company.

Who’s excited? I’m excited. Look, I am no Bills apologist, but if you look at last year’s schedule and consider that Buffalo:

- should’ve beat Tennessee (lost 35-34 on Matt Hasselback TD pass with 1:03 remaining, set up by a Ryan Fitzpatrick INT on final Bills possession)

- should’ve beat New England (lost 37-31, game-winning drive killed by horrible Fitzpatrick INT)

- could’ve beaten Indianapolis (lost 20-13, awful fourth-quarter Fitzpatrick INT leads to Stevie Johnson forcing a fumble on Colts safety Tom Zbikowski, Fitzy then leads Bills to a three-and-out, never get the ball back)

- should’ve beaten St. Louis (lost 15-12, Fitzpatrick rushes for four yards, passes for three yards in the fourth quarter, Rams score game-winning TD with 48 seconds left)

There’s a common element in all of those scenarios that is no longer in Orchard Park. I’m just saying that if the Bills win those four games, or beat the Colts and win two of those other three games, we’re looking at a playoff team. And this was with a terrible QB, a terrible coach and a terrible defense. Have a little hope, fans!

Anyhow, let’s look at five storylines as we get make our final approach towards the 2013 season :

1.) Jairus Byrd is not happy. According to NFL.com’s Marc Sessler, the two-time Pro Bowl safety has not signed his one-year franchise deal and no progress is being made towards a long-term deal with the Bills. Since his rookie season in 2009, Byrd has 18 INTs and 10 forced fumbles. Without Byrd, the Buffalo secondary goes from pretty solid to genuinely shaky. Sign this man, Russ Brandon!

2.) Who’s going to play QB? Obviously we are all excited to see Florida State product E.J. Manuel in action. Even the cynics among us, in their unguarded moments, have visions of RG3 and Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck dancing through their heads. Veteran QB Kevin Kolb, however, is conceding nothing—from Gregg Rosenthal:

“I don’t buy what’s being sold I guess,” Kolb told the Bills’ official website regarding his perceived spot as a placeholder. “I just listen to what (the coaches) tell me to do and roll on with it. I have a lot of confidence in my abilities and this offense and hopefully what I can do in it.”

Frankly, I am kind of interested in seeing this Jeff Tuel character, as well. An undrafted rookie, Tuel was on his way towards a memorable career at Washington State before suffering a collarbone injury as a junior. I have no problem with Marrone developing another rookie on the side while Manuel takes the spotlight.



3.) We may have a brand-new kicking tandem for the first time since 2003. Brian Moorman was cut loose last season. His replacement, Shawn Powell, put 23 of his 65 punts inside the 20-yard line and averaged 44 yards a kick.

BuffaloBills.com reports that Powell “has displayed a huge leg, hitting punts with unofficial hang times of five seconds” but has been pushed by free-agent signee Brian Stahovich—a former San Diego State Aztec who spent time in the preseason with Indianapolis last year and “has been putting the pressure on Powell with hang times consistently between 4.6 and 4.9 seconds.”

Kicker Rian Lindell is still on the roster, but in a league where long-range bombers are becoming increasingly common, Lindell is better known for his short game. The Bills used a sixth-round draft pick on Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins, which suggests that Lindell’s 10-year tenure with Buffalo is coming to an end.



4.) Is there any hope that the defense won’t be awful again?  The Bills’ 2012 defensive stat line: 145.8 rush yards allowed per game, 31st in the league. Twenty-seven points allowed per game, 26th in the league. Over 362 yards allowed per game, 22nd in the league. A series of fourth-quarter collapses. An inability to get to the quarterback consistently. Embarrassments against New England (52 points allowed), San Francisco (45 points allowed) and Seattle (50 points allowed). Ugly.

At the very least—barring any setbacks, and with full understanding that the bar is not set high—the defense should be better. On the line, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Mark Anderson have genuine talent. With free agent signee Manny Lawson, rookie Kiko Alonso and emerging second-year player Nigel Bradham, the linebackers should—should—be a little more stable. The secondary (assuming Byrd returns) will feature an all-pro at safety, first-round draft picks at the corners (Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin) and decent depth (Aaron Williams, Da’Norris Searcy, rookie Duke Williams, among others).

New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine plans to run an aggressive scheme that includes a 3-4 / 4-3 hybrid and lots of blitzing. So we should be in better shape…right?



5.) Do we have any hope for the playoffs? Well, New England is expected to be better on defense but is obviously hamstrung by the loss of TE Aaron Hernandez and the ongoing injury woes of TE Rob Gronkowski. Miami expects QB Ryan Tannehill to make the leap this season, and the Dolphins’ defense is shaping up to be fairly nasty, as well. The New York Jets are expected to be a train wreck.

Outside of the AFC East, the competition remains stout. Every team in the AFC North—including the Cleveland Browns—can be dangerous. The AFC South is full of questions marks, but would anyone be surprised to see big seasons out of Houston, Indianapolis or Tennessee? The Denver Broncos should dominate the AFC West, but Kansas City is a sexy sleeper pick, and San Diego and Oakland have the potential to be competitive, as well. 

The Bills will play the AFC North and NFC South this season, and—in reviewing the schedule—it takes a decent amount of optimism to project this group as a .500 team. But that’s why they play the games!

TAGGED: buffalo bills, e.j. manuel, national football league

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