It’s Go Time

There probably isn’t a better weekend in America year in and year out the NFL’s opening Sunday.  Every team goes into that first week tied for 1st place.  Then teams spend the next 16 weeks trying to make the playoffs for a shot at the Lombardi trophy.  What makes the NFL so unique and exciting is that every game is an event.  There is a week of build up to the game and then the game itself.  It’s the only sport like this and that’s what makes it so popular.

Ready for liftoff…

If you are a Buffalo Bills fan, which I have been since I was 7 years old, today is a more exciting opening day than we’ve had for the better part of a decade.  It’s not just about the prospect of having a better team.  It’s not just that the Bills went out and spent big money on Mario Williams.  My fellow Red Sox fans can now relate to having to root for that unlikable team.  Well Bills fans have been doing that for over a decade.  Even their last playoff team was marred by a quarterback controversy between two unlikable guys.  The previous opening day starters before the current one, J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards were, for the lack of a better term, a couple of stiffs.  Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard educated man who looks like a lumberjack, is an easy guy to root for.  Picked in the 7th round of the 2005 draft he played for 2 teams before settling in Buffalo as the starter.

Starting receiver Stevie Johnson was a 7th round pick.  The other two starting receivers, David Nelson and Donald Jones, went undrafted.  Running back Fred Jackson was undrafted out of Division III Coe College.  His other stops before finally making it to the NFL included the Arena League and NFL Europe.  These are the type of guys that you love to root for as a sports fan.  Even the high draft picks like Marcell Dareus, Eric Wood,  C.J. Spiller, and Aaron Williams are likable players.  Good ‘ole southern boy Chan Gailey is a likable coach.  This team is different from the team in years passed.  Maybe it’s because the team has finally invested in keeping it’s own players.  Maybe they just finally “get it” up in Western New York.

Of course the games still need to be played but something can be said for hope.  In years passed Bills fans were excited by opening day but it was more blind faith that drove them.  Now there is finally substance to the hope in early September.

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Buffalo Bills Pre-Season Game 1 – 5 Things To Watch

The Bills kick off their preseason slate of games tonight when they host Robert Griffith III and the Washington Redskins.  It’s been a long off-season for Bills fans who were given hope in the wake of their late season collapse with the high profile free agent signing of star defensive end Mario Williams as well as a push to retain their own key players, a philosophy that had been lost on the organization in the decade prior.  The Bills will begin their push to return to the playoffs in earnest tonight with their first tune-up.  The starters will likely be on the field for roughly 12 plays before giving way to the backups who will be fighting for a roster spot.  Here are 5 things to watch in tonight’s game:

Rookie 2nd rounder Glenn will start at left tackle tonight

1. Who will be the left tackle?  This one will be interesting to watch tonight.  Both candidates for starting left tackle, rookie 2nd round pick Cordy Glenn and second year player Chris Hairston, will be in the starting lineup as incumbent starting right tackle Erik Pears is out with an injury.  In a perfect world the Bills will have Glenn as their starting left tackle and Hairston the starting right tackle in the long term but they still have the veteran Pears on the roster and both of the younger guys need to gain experience.  Glenn seems to have the edge so far at left tackle and he will get the chance to prove it with the start tonight.  Hairston played well in spurts last year but he did suffer several injuries.  Both guys will be going up against starting defensive ends at the beginning of the game which will help in evaluation.  Expect to see both guys at left tackle at certain points tonight with both the 1st and 2nd units.

2. Who will step up at wide receiver?  The Bills have two spots locked up at receiver – they have a bonafide #1 receiver in Stevie Johnson who just signed a 5-year extension in the off-season and a mainstay at slot receiver in David Nelson who has caught 92 balls over his first two seasons in the league.  Donald Jones is the #2 right now, as he was at the beginning of last season.  Jones is dependable enough when he’s healthy but he’s missed 9 games to injury over his first two seasons.  Of note to watch are two young receivers who will be jockeying for playing time – 3rd round pick T.J. Graham, a burner who can get behind a defense quickly, and 3rd year man Marcus Easley, who has yet to play a down in the NFL.  After losing his rookie season to a knee injury Easley had a good camp last year before hitting injured reserve right before the start of the season with a heart ailment.  Easley is purportedly back to 100% and is a big target with plus speed so any contribution from him will be an added bonus.  Veteran Derek Hagan, who showed good chemistry with Ryan Fitzpatrick late last season, also figures to be in the mix.  Nelson won’t play after tweaking his knee in camp last week so it should give some of the otehr guys some time with Fitz tonight.

Young has struggled in his attempt to become Fitz’s backup and may be playing for his job already in game 1

3. Will Vince Young make it to preseason week 2?  There has been rumblings out of training camp that the Bills coaching staff is already prepared to cut ties with quarterback Vince Young who has been slow to catch on to the Bills offense.  That says a lot about Young when you consider that the Bills thought so much about Young’s competition for back-up QB, Tyler Thigpen, that they let Ryan Fitzpatrick play the last 9 games of last season with cracked ribs rather than inserting Thigpen into the lineup.  It seems like a make-or-break game tonight for Young who will get to prove himself in game action before the Bills make any decision on him.  If I were Thigpen I wouldn’t rest in my laurels without Young as there is plenty of time to get someone else into practice and throw them into the competition if Young bows out this early.  Despite the reports of Young’s demise GM Buddy Nix told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche this morning that he expects the battle to go down to Week 4 of the preseason so we’ll see how it goes.

4. How will the defensive line’s second unit shape up?  We know about Mario-Kyle-Dareus-Anderson but what about the guys coming up behind them?  Chris Kelsay is an everyman who is as solid as any 3rd DE in the league.  Shawne Merriman can be a huge asset if he is healthy but he hasn’t been healthy in 4 years.  The keys to the 2nd unit are the two 3rd year men – Alex Carrington and Torell Troup.  Carrington has shown flashes in his first two years and if he continues to develop he can be molded into a Chris Canty-type player on this stacked defensive line.  Troup on the other hand has shown very little in his first two seasons  A lot of it is due to injury but again you’ve got to stay healthy to produce.  Troup played in the 4-3 in college and he said in the off-season that he would be more comfortable as an attacking d-tackle in Dave Wannstedt’s new 4-3.  Now is the time for him to show it.

2nd year man Williams has a leg up on the competition for 2nd CB spot

5. How will the cornerback unit shape up?  So far in training camp Stephon Gilmore has lived up to the hype and appears to be a lock for one of the starters jobs.  2nd year man Aaron Williams has been playing the #2 spot to mixed results, one day Gailey and Wannstedt will criticize his play and the next they will praise him.  He definitely played well as a rookie.  Leodis McKelvin has been working in the slot and that might be the best spot for him.  He struggles mightily against bigger receivers and gets beat along the sidelines often so the middle of the field might be the best place for him.  Terrence McGee is coming back from injury and looking to make one last run with the Bills in his 9th season with the team.  He will be pushed by youngsters Justin Rogers, who was a revelation as a 7th round pick last season, and Ron Brooks, who played behind two All-Americans at LSU.

That’s the 5 biggest things to look for in this game tonight.  There are of course larger issues such as how Wannstedt’s new 4-3 defense acclimates but that is something better reviewed over the long haul of the full preseason schedule rather than after 1 game.  The 1st game will really be about young guys jockeying for position and fringe roster players fighting to live another week.  It will be interesting to see how conservative RG3 is in his first NFL preseason game, particularly against the Bills’ revamped and revved-up defensive front.  One thing is for sure – it’s great to see some NFL action again after a long off-season.  Enjoy the game.

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Thoughts on Bills/Titans

Well, it was fun while it lasted.  What started out as a fun and exciting season had it’s legs officially cut out from under it this Sunday with a 23-17 loss to the Titans and a 5th straight loss.  The Bills dim playoff hopes were put out and if the Lions and Texans can both qualify for the playoffs than the Bills will have the longest playoff drought of any team in three sports (the MLB has a handful of teams that have gone longer).  Either way it’s a disappointment and you need to wonder, once again, what exactly is next for this organization.  Here are my thoughts on the disappointing game 12:

  • I know Ryan Fitzpatrick has taken a lot of flak for his performance since he signed his contract extension but I think he is making the best of a bad situation.  He’s trying to get everyone involved and he plays his ass off, whether he is playing poorly or playing well.  The Bills just need to keep building around this guy.
  • I remember a playmaker on the Jets named Brad Smith who used to make all of these plays when he played the Bills.  I was wondering what happened to him.  Good to see that guy show up in the last couple of weeks.
  • C.J. Spiller had his best game as a pro yesterday.  By far.  Of course there was not much to go against but he really play and ran hard.  You have to wonder what could have been had Corey McIntyre not been called for a hold on his TD run that was called back.  Having 3 carries in the 2nd half didn’t help either.
  • The offensive line hasn’t been terrible but they haven’t been as good with Eric Wood out of the lineup.  Kraig Urbik tries hard but he’s just not as good.
  • Another poor defensive effort in the first half by the Bills but a light seemed to go off in the second half.  I’m hoping that it’s something that they can build on because it would be nice for these young guys to get some experience at being a good, solid unit before the re-group with the injured guys for next season.
  • In the spirit of the above, Kelvin Sheppard looked to continue his brutal play from last week in the first half but seemed to play real strong in the 2nd half.  He’s been inconsistent but his development is key to the future success of this defense.  If he and Nick Barnett can make a formidable duo in the middle they can build out from there.
  • Aaron Williams played well again before his injury.  He’s going to be a player.  I hope he can make it back before the end of the season.  I think Justin Rogers has a lot of potential too.  That news is welcome to Bills fans who are sick of the Bills drafting cornerbacks.
  • Jairus Byrd is a beast.  If the Bills can ever re-build this defense he might just be the centerpiece.  He sets the pace for the whole defense.
  • Chan Gailey had another day as inconsistent as the rest of the team.  His play-calling has been sporadic.  I think that they shy away from the run too much (seems like it’s been a trend for years for the Bills) and I can’ help but feel that the guys are not always in the best position to succeed.  He gets a half of a pass to because the personnel is not exactly what he expected it to be but still we need to see a better game plan from Chan.

I haven’t got much more to add…I’m just hoping for a 7-9 season…8 would be nice but they way they are going it’s a long shot.

Twitter @ErikVenskus

Despite growing pains the future is bright for the Bills defense

I know that many of the members of Bills nation don’t want to speak optimistically about the future right now, after all they’ve been doing it for the past 12 years, but maybe it’s time to put some rose colors on those glasses.  The bills defense has been dismal so far this year but thanks to what looks like a much needed and long overdue loaded draft class the future finally looks bright.

Let’s start with #3 overall pick Marcell Dareus.  The Alabama alum was quick to fit into the Bills hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense because Alabama ran an almost identical defense.  Dareus was blowing up offensive linemen for the first few weeks of the season.  It looked like he was going to make quite the formidable duo with Pro Bowl Nose Tackle Kyle Williams but big Kyle’s season ended after 6 games and Dareus was kicked inside to the Nose.  He’s been playing out of position, and has been the focal point of opposing offensive linemen, but Dareus is learning at the school of Hard Knocks and will be battle tested once Kyle Williams is ready to return to the line-up in 2012 and return to his natural DE position.  It was a no-brainer pick for the Bills back in April but one that should set the front line of the defense up for years to come.

Next up was the 2nd overall pick in round #2, Aaron Williams, a cornerback out of Texas.  I have to admit I love this kid.  I love his attitude and his personality but he’s had a tough year.  He’s been thrown into the lineup because of injuries, been carted off the field himself in a big game against the Patriots, and had to wait out the injury while the Bills struggled to stay in contention.  Williams returned to the lineup two weeks ago against the Dolphins to immediate significant playing time.  This past week Williams was matched up with former Super Bowl M.V.P. Santonio Holmes and his play was absolutely sterling.  He blanketed him for most of the day, including a nice pass break up in the end zone.  In the end Holmes had too much time to run around as Mark Sanchez ran around in the pocket with no pressure being put on him and Williams lost him in the end zone for the game winning touchdown.  You live and you learn but there is no doubt in my mind that Aaron Williams will be a player in this league.

The Bills went linebacker in the third round taking Kelvin Sheppard, a veteran of Les Miles’ defensive system at L.S.U.  Sheppard has brought energy to the field since day 1 with the Bills defense.  Sheppard quickly supplanted starter and captain Andra Davis in the lineup a month into the season and quickly made an impact, crushing Michael Vick and forcing and interception and ensuing touchdown by fellow middle linebacker Nick Barnett.  Sheppard has been prone to the big play, recording a safety against the Dolphins in Miami a few weeks ago.  I’d like to see the Bills blitz Sheppard more and that will come as the defense is filled out.  As it stands it looks like Buddy Nix and co. went 3 for 3 as far as opening day 2012 starters go for the defense at the top of the 2011 draft.

Nix didn’t quit there.  He added to his special teams by drafting safety Da’Norris Searcy out of North Carolina in Round 4 and Linebacker Chris White in round 6.  Searcy has started the last two games for injured captain George Wilson and has filled in admirably.  He may well be starter #4 in a few years time.  Overall it was an excellent job by Nix and his scouting staff.  This is a draft for the defense that the Bills have been sorely lacking for years.  You could probably go back to 2001, when Nate Clements and Aaron Schobel were both drafted in the first two rounds, to find this type of prospective long term production for the Bills.  If these guys can live up to their potential, 5-2 might not turn into 8-8 next time around.

Twitter @ErikVenskus

Thoughts on Bills/Jets

After looking like they’ve been left for dead on the side of the road for the past month the Bills finally showed some signs of life yesterday at the Meadowlands.  It wasn’t enough, however, for the Bills to avert the Jets from completing the season sweep.  The last minute 28-24 loss made the Bills 0-2 on the season at the Meadowlands with losses by a combined 7 points.  Still the Bills are at 5-6 and barely clinging on to the playoff hunt.  It is almost impossible for the Bills to hop over the Bengals AND the Jets, as they have lost tie-breakers to both of those teams.  There is still something to be said for finishing out strong and the Bills might have picked up enough momentum to end the year with a handful of wins and build some momentum going into the all-important third year of the Gailey/Nix regime.  My game thoughts:

  • First let’s talk about how the 2010 draft set the Bills back and you can’t even fault C.J. Spiller for this game.  He ran hard and didn’t back down in his first full game as the primary back.  He’s still a work in progress.  2nd round pick Torell Troup missed another game and will likely miss the rest of the year.  3rd round pick Alex Carrington started off strong but has faded into mediocrity.  4th round pick Marcus Easley hasn’t seen a professional snap and may well never see one at all.  They’ve gotten no production at all from the class.  That’s the kind of draft class that set you back for years.
  • Now let’s talk about the 2011 draft.  Marcell Dareus is going to be a good player in this league for a long time, he just needs more people around him.  2nd round pick Aaron Williams was thrown into the fire after missing half the year and held his own (I’ll have more on him in a minute).  3rd round pick Kelvin Sheppard didn’t have his best game but he’s played real well in the last few weeks and plays hard until the last whistle.  4th rounders Chris Hairston and Da’Norris Searcy are great back-up players who have filled in admirably for injured starters.  This is the type of draft that can set you up for years.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed to get some of his confidence back yesterday.  It would have been nice if he made that touchdown throw to Stevie Johnson wide open in the end zone at the end of the game but it was a good bounce back game nonetheless for Fitz.  He’s generally played well in December for the Bills so I expect him to keep it going for the rest of the year.
  • Stevie Johnson also had a great bounce back game with 8 catches and 75 yards.  It would have been nice if he caught that ball over the middle right in his hands at the end of the game.  And that celebration.  Oh, that celebration.
  • You have to give the Bills offense credit for playing a good game against a good defense without Fred Jackson.  It was pretty ballsy for Fitz and Stevie to play pitch and catch right in front of Darrelle Revis, which they did for most of the game.  I’d like the see C.J. Spiller hit the hole a little harder and finish off runs.
  • Leodis McKelvin is becoming a beast on Special Teams.  The guy is a good football player and just needs to learn the instincts in the passing game to succeed at CB.  I said a few weeks ago that he can be great if he got it all together and maybe he can get his confidence back up excel at this part of the game.
  • Defensively the Bills are as inconsistent as ever.  They played hard but they are undermanned, both by injury and overall lack of depth.  Nick Barnett is a player but they have NOTHING at outside linebacker.  Spencer Johnson can not set an edge to save his life.
  • Back to Aaron Williams.  That kid has gone though a lot already in his first year…thrown into the fire when Terrence McGee was hurt in the first series of the year, being carted off the field in week 3 against the Patriots, missing the game in his hometown of Dallas, and then being thrown right back into the fire coming off of injury due to Terrence McGee’s second injury.  Williams started his first NFL game and played well all game against Santonio Holmes, a former Super Bowl M.V.P.  After all that he gave up the game winning touchdown after Sanchez had what seemed like an eternity to find Holmes open in the end zone.  From all accounts Williams is a great kid and a talented football player and I hope he bounces back and continues to become a key part of the Bills defense for years to come.

Well that’s about all she wrote for the Bills’ playoff chances.  It has to be disappointing for this team and this fan base to be back in mediocrity after such a promising start.  The important part is for the Bills to win a few more games this season and put together another good draft and come back next year and maybe finally make it “that year”  Until then it will be another long offseason in Western New York, unless of course they can work a miracle in the last five games.

Twitter @ErikVenskus

It’s homecoming weekend for three Bills

The Bills and Cowboys have had a pretty good rivalry since they faced each other in back-to-back Super Bowls back in 1992 and 1993.  The last time they played each other, on a Monday night in Buffalo, the two teams delivered one of the best games of the year.  The two teams will look to duplicate that this Sunday in Dallas and the Bills will no doubt be looking for a little revenge following that heart-breaking Monday Night loss 4 years ago.  For three Bills players, however, it is more than just a rivalry game.  Running Back Fred Jackson, Wide Receiver David Nelson, and Cornerback Aaron Williams are all coming home.

Aaron Williams was born in San Jose, California but grew up in Round Rock, Texas.  He attended McNeil High School in Austin, Texas where he was a Parade All-American.  He also made second team All-USA team by USA Today.  He also played in the 2008 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.  Williams was the only Texas native on the Bills roster to stay at home and play college ball, attending the University of Texas under Mack Brown.  He started 23 games at UT and was a second team All-Big 12 in 2010.  Williams was drafted by the Bills in the 2nd round in the 2011 NFL draft.  This week’s game will be extra sweet for Williams if he is able to go, as it will be the first action he would see since the scary injury that he suffered in Week 3 against the Patriots when he was carted off the field.

David Nelson was born and raised in Wichita Falls, Texas.  He played at 1A Petrolia High School before he moved to S.H. Rider High School in Wichita Falls.  Nelson was named Class 4A first team all state for his senior season in which he caught 91 balls for 1,641 yards and 18 touchdowns.  He also played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.  Nelson was captain and letterwinner for the Rider Raiders, a fact that won’t surprise Bills fans who have gotten to know David during the past two years.  Nelson headed to the University of Florida to play with one of the best college players of all time, Tim Tebow.  Nelson went undrafted in the 2010 NFL draft but was quickly scooped up by Buffalo, where he has caught 66 balls for 755 yards and 6 TDs in only a season and a half.  It will be a very satisfying homecoming for Nelson, who has earned his stardom the hard way.

Perhaps the most satisfying homecoming story however belongs to Fort Worth native Fred Jackson (sorry, couldn’t find a high school picture of him.)  Jackson attended Lamar High School in Arlington.  He traveled to little Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  His amazing career path has gone from Lamar to Coe to the Sioux City Bandits of the National Indoor Football League to the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe to the Buffalo Bills practice squad to finally, starting Running Back of the Buffalo Bills.  He made the Bills’ roster during the 2006 season and since then has amassed 3,663 yards on the ground to go along with 1,484 yards through the air and 20 touchdowns.  In 2011, at age 30, Fred Jackson is a candidate for NFL MVP and on pace to match or surpass the best all-around performance by a Bills franchise that has had versatile Hall-of-Famers O.J. Simpson and Thurman Thomas in its backfield.  It will be an extra special homecoming for Jackson who has certainly not taken the easy road from Lamar High School in Arlington to face of the franchise for the Buffalo Bills.

Good luck to those Texas boys on the Buffalo Bills and the rest of the squad in a big game this weekend in Dallas.

Twitter @ErikVenskus

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