Friday, August 09, 2002

Bills' revamped O-line faces first test



By SAL MAIORANA
Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle

        ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The schedule says that the Buffalo Bills will be playing their first preseason game Friday night, but it's not going to feel like an opener to the members of the first-string offensive line.

        With all the changes that have been made during the off-season to Drew Bledsoe's security detail, coach Gregg Williams said that particular unit needs all the playing time it can get, starting now.

        So while Bledsoe and just about every other starter on both sides of the ball will be relaxing on the sideline by the start of the second quarter, the big boys up front will still be banging heads with the Cincinnati Bengals, probably right up until halftime.

        “The No. 1 thing for me going into this game would be the length our offensive line plays,” Williams said. “One of the things we've got to handle is playing our offensive line a little bit longer in the first preseason game because we need to get a good number of reps of communication with them up front.”

        With left guard Ruben Brown sidelined by a knee injury, the only returning starter from last year is Jonas Jennings. And Jennings, a second-year man who was Buffalo's right tackle in 2001, is lining up at a new position, the all-important left tackle spot.

        Next to him will be Michael Early, in place of Brown. Free-agent acquisition Trey Teague will be at center, even though he came to the Bills as a left tackle. On the right side, with Jerry Ostroski unable to play, Marques Sullivan will be at guard, and rookie Mike Williams will start at tackle.

        “We're like a newly-married couple right now,” offensive line coach Ronnie Vinklarek said. “We're happy together, we want to be together, but we still don't know what makes each other feel good and we don't know each other's nuances.”

        In football parlance, that means the offensive line needs to build the three C's - cohesiveness, chemistry and communication.

        “When I say cohesiveness, we've got to know what the other guy is thinking,” Vinklarek said. “When I say chemistry, we've got to have a feel for each other. And communication is simply making the calls, making sure we're talking to each other.”

        While the Bills have been working on those aspects throughout training camp, the only way to get a true gauge on whether things are coming together is in a game setting.

        “You're not going to see that speed in practice, and it's not going to happen until it flashes in front of you,” Vinklarek said. “We do a great job of simulating those things in practice, but we have to see it at game speed.”

        Jennings isn't thrilled that he'll be working a little overtime, but he agreed it's necessary.

        “Anytime you've got something new you have to build chemistry, and you've got to play as long as you can to build that chemistry,” he said.

        “Regardless of who's in there, it's the same plays, the same steps, the same assignments, so when it gets down to personnel, it gets down to the little things like knowing where a person's going to be at a certain time, knowing what he's doing and him knowing what I'm doing.

        “We're learning as a line and that's what I'm looking for, to see how we look against other people in a game setting.”

        Starting running back Travis Henry would love to get more than the one quarter of action he's scheduled to receive. After missing the last three games of 2001 with a knee injury, Henry is anxious to get back into the mix, particularly because the line has changed so much.

        “I just want to get in there, get in a rhythm and try to get a feel for my offensive linemen,” he said. “I wish I could be in there with them because the more reps and the more plays I get with them, the more comfortable I'll be running behind them.”

        Gregg Williams said that the quarterback rotation will have Bledsoe playing the first quarter, Alex Van Pelt the second, and Travis Brown the second half, unless Williams can squeeze fourth-stringer David Priestley in at the end.

        “I'm fired up about it, I'm ready to take the field with these guys,” Bledsoe said. “I feel good about the team and about the season, so it's good to start playing some real games.”

        At running back, Williams wants to see as many backs as possible get carries, and then he will parcel out in more detail the work in the final three games.

        On defense, the key area Williams will watch is the defensive line, where he is trying to find a few good men capable of starting at the NFL level. Right now, the Bills have very few of those.

        Williams said there will be a constant rotation up front because that's how the team will play in the regular season as well.

        In the secondary, hot-button areas are fourth cornerback, where many players are in contention, led perhaps by Jason Bostic, and free safety, where Pierson Prioleau and Tony Driver are in a heated battle.

        “The first two weeks is critical for the young, down-the-line guys to take a jump in the coaches eyes,” Williams said. “Past that second preseason game, the reps slide off the table because you have to be progressing with your guys who are going to start the opening game.”

        In other words, this would be a good time for many of the Bills to make a mark.

       



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