NFL Team Previews: Buffalo Bills

It’s been 1999 since the Buffalo Bills last made the playoffs and it’s been 2004 since they last had a winning season. It looked like last year might finally be Buffalo’s time after a good start, but before long quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was getting beat up, the losses were piling up and the loyal fans at Rich Stadium were staring up at a 6-10 finish. Cautious optimism surrounds the Bills as we get set for 2012. TheSportsNotebook breaks the team down to see if this is finally a breakout year…

OFFENSE: There’s plenty of reason to feel good about the offensive front. The interior is very good, with Eric Wood anchoring the trenches at center and Andy Levitre being a solid presence at left guard. Kraig Urbik is decent at the other guard spot and still just three years into his career, so there’s room for improvement. The problem has been on the perimeter where questionable play at the tackles has left Fitzpatrick exposed. Chris Hairston, entering his third year in the NFL at the left tackle spot has the talent to develop into a good pass-blocker and what he can do will tell us a lot about the kind of season the Bills will have.

If Buffalo can improve its pass protection there’s no reason for Fitzpatrick not to cut down on the mistakes. 23 interceptions are just not going to hack it anywhere. It’s not like Fitzpatrick is Brett Favre, where he can compensate for blunders with big plays. Buffalo won’t win unless the INTs come down very significantly. The receiving corps is also questionable—Steve Johnson remains a nice target at one wideout, but he’s the only player opposing secondaries really have to account for in the passing game.

The strength of Buffalo’s interior line will serve the running game well. The ideal would be for 31-year-old Fred Jackson to return to form after breaking his foot last year. If that doesn’t work out, the next option would be for C.J. Spiller to live up to his vast potential. Either hope is reasonable and can give Fitzpatrick some needed run support.

DEFENSE: As long as the offense doesn’t blow things up with turnovers and setting up bad field position, the defense can win its share of battles. Buffalo sports an excellent defensive line after going out in free agency and getting their young defensive tackle Marcell Dareus some help on the outside. The Bills signed Mario Williams away from Houston and Mark Anderson from New England, Putting one elite pass-rusher and another pretty good one into the mix will keep the heat on opposing quarterbacks and Dareus will prevent opposing O-lines from shifting their protections too far to the outside.

A pedestrian group of linebackers can be managed—it remains to be seen whether Shawn Merriman will play here or at defensive end. More to the point it remains to be seen where the injury-prone Merriman can play anywhere effectively after a persistent hamstring problem ended his fine run in San Diego. Of greater concern than the linebackers though, is the play at corner. Terrence McGee is a liability and the organization is betting a lot on 21-year-old rookie Stephen Gilmore to step in opposite McGee.

If nothing else, Buffalo has a very good strong safety in George Wilson and a ballhawk in centerfield with Jairus Byrd. Wilson and Byrd can bail out the corners to a certain extent, but it’s tough to survive in the NFL for too long if you can’t cover on the outside.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 7.5—This is a high number given Buffalo’s history. When I look at the personnel on the field, I get it. The team is good in both lines and that alone can win you half your games. But to go with the Over, I’m being asked to trust a team with an erratic quarterback, problems at corner and limited skill position firepower to do something it’s only done twice in twelve years and that’s go 8-8. Buffalo’s a “prove-it-to-me-first” team now and for that reason I have to go Under.