Moulds injury leaves hole for Shaw, Reed to fill

Two weeks ago, the Buffalo Bills discovered how difficult life can be without a National Football League-quality running back. On Sunday, they're in for a lesson just as harsh when they sample life on the road without their most dangerous offensive weapon.

(David Staba is the sports editor for the Niagara Falls Reporter Newspaper, writer for the New York Times, and a new feature columnist to BillsReport.com.)

Wide receiver Eric Moulds, Drew Bledsoe's favorite - and often only - target in last week's 22-16 overtime win against Cincinnati, is listed as doubtful for Buffalo's weekend visit to New Jersey. Moulds strained a groin muscle on the decisive drive against the Bengals, an injury that figures to severely limit him even if he does suit up against the Jets on Sunday.

When torn rib cartilage kept Travis Henry sidelined against Philadelphia two weeks ago, Joe Burns and Ken Simonton validated their places in the NFL - so long as that place is on special teams, or the practice squad. Between them, they covered all of 21 yards on 10 carries - not nearly enough to keep the Eagles defense honest en route to a 23-13 Philly win.

Buffalo's understudies at wideout, Josh Reed and Bobby Shaw, have better resumes than Burns and Simonton, but are far from guaranteed to present a reasonable facsimile of Moulds.

Reed's 37 catches for 509 yards and a pair of scores as a rookie made it easier for Bills President/General Manager Tom Donahoe to give Atlanta the opportunity to overpay for Peerless Price. This year, though, the LSU product hasn't looked like an adequate No. 3 receiver, to say nothing of No. 2.

Through five weeks, Reed has nearly as many drops as catches (11), including a couple of sure touchdowns that slipped through his fingers.

Shaw has shown better hands and posted superior numbers (20 catches, 284 yards), but eight of his grabs came in the second halves of losses to Miami and Philadelphia, when the Bills were in hurry-up mode and the Dolphins and Eagles were giving up underneath routes to protect against the deep ball.

Buffalo isn't exactly overloaded with targets for Drew Bledsoe's throws, putting even more pressure on Reed and Shaw to step up from complementary to primary roles.

Tight ends Dave Moore and Mark Campbell are bigger factors in the running game than in passing schemes.

Travis Henry emerged as a threat out of the backfield last year with 43 catches, but he's not a downfield danger even when his ribs are healthy. Sam Gash is a much more forceful blocker than the departed Larry Centers, but only good for a catch every two or three weeks.

The three young wideouts competing for the extra spots in three- and four-receiver sets - Clarence Coleman, Sam Aiken and Antonio Brown - have a combined total of zero regular-season receptions.

For Buffalo to throw with any consistency during Moulds' absence - and groin injuries have a tendency to linger and recur - Reed and Shaw need to prove they can a) get open without an All-Pro drawing double coverage away from them on every snap; and b) hold on to the ball when Bledsoe delivers it.

The quality of the Bills' opposition this week should help. The Jets rank third in the NFL against the pass, which demonstrates how useless those statistics can be. New York has allowed just 165.8 yards per game through the air, mainly because opponents have enjoyed so much success running the ball, throwing it presents an unnecessary risk.

The Jets' defense has faced a league-low 22.8 passes per game because it has been absolutely pathetic against the run, giving up an average of 174 yards per outing, easily the worst in the NFL.

But while former Bills defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell lacks the personnel to stifle a fully functioning offense, he's more than capable of devising a game plan to blunt a one-dimensional attack. If Reed and Shaw can't free themselves from single coverage downfield, the Jets will stack eight defenders up front in an effort to bury Buffalo's struggling running game.

Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride should have a prime opportunity to demonstrate the Bills' commitment to the ground attack, since New York isn't capable of scoring enough points to make them abandon it.

As feeble as Buffalo's attempts to run have been at times, particularly against Miami and Philadelphia, the Jets are even worse. The Bills rank 31st with 58.4 rushing yards per game, ahead of only the New York's 52.2.

With the elderly Vinny Testaverde forced to constantly play catch-up, the Jets rank 31st in time of possession, another problem area for Buffalo (which checks in at No. 27).

New York's severe deficiencies on both sides of the ball turned a badly overhyped team into an 0-4 joke, and have fans and media speculating that Testaverde and the equally faded Curtis Martin may be headed for the bench.

Even in their worst seasons, though, the Bills and Jets have a history of tormenting each other. In 1968, the Bills intercepted Joe Namath five times in a 37-35 win at the old Rockpile, avoiding the disgrace of becoming the first professional football team to go winless over a 14-game schedule. A little more than three months later, Namath led the Jets to their landmark win in Super Bowl III.

In 1992, a feeble Jets squad fired up over the paralyzing injury suffered by defensive lineman Dennis Byrd a week earlier stunned the Super Bowl-bound Bills, 24-17 at Rich Stadium.

And in 1999, Doug Flutie's Bills took a detour through New Jersey on the way to the playoffs and got ambushed 17-7 by a going-nowhere Jets team with Ray Lucas at quarterback.

These Jets are at least as flawed as the victor in each of those upsets.

Chad Pennington's broken wrist left Jets head coach Herman Edwards with no choice but to turn to Testaverde. But nobody made New York build its offense around Martin, who clearly shows the effects wrought by seven years of very heavy duty.

Testaverde's not going to get any younger, and Martin isn't going to rediscover that extra step he lost. But if the Bills can't find a way to produce points without their most dangerous weapon, old and slow might be good enough to manufacture New York's first win of the season.


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