UNREST on the O-line?

Something's not quite right with the Bills' offensive line. ‘Yeah,' you say, ‘there are too many injuries along it and there are too many inexperienced players filling in.' Certainly, you'd be correct in your assessment. But there's something else too; something strange; something that veteran guard Ruben Brown tipped off by not wanting to comment on the differences between former line coach Carl Mauck and current line coach Ronnie Vinklarek, or even how he thought Vinklarek was doing.

When a player surprises a reporter by not answering a couple of seemingly harmless questions, the antennae go up. To his credit, Brown didn't attempt to give some kind of answer filled with officially licensed sports clichés. Many players would do that, for fear of disturbing the peace. But Brown, he just didn't want to talk about those things.

So that begs why? Maybe Brown didn't have stellar things to say, causing one to surmise that he's unhappy with the way things have been going or that he won't be motorcycling with Vinklarek in the off-season.

Whatever the reason, the Bills can't afford to throw Brown away just because they may not be getting program "buy-in" from him. After all, they already threw away a number of valuable veterans who could have helped the team cope this season. The Bills need Brown because he's a good player. Certainly, whatever their disagreements, these two sides will have to peacefully coexist for now.

Yet, the funny thing about the situation is that Vinklarek said Brown and fellow veteran John Fina have been cooperative with him in helping the younger players improve with each game. Indeed, they are professionals.

"John and Ruben have been receptive to everything I've tried to get across," Vinklarek said. "And I'm going to be one of those guys that's going to hear ideas and things like that. John and Ruben have tried to be upbeat and positive with the young guys. I think that's helped. Of course the young guys are going to be excited and enthusiastic, and that's going to help them mesh. It's kind of created a good chemistry."

The Bills' line chemistry has been stunted somewhat due to injuries, however. Starting right guard Jerry Ostroski broke his leg in the preseason, forcing first-year guard Corey Hulsey into the lineup. More recently, starting tackles John Fina had a quad bruise and rookie Jonas Jennings a hip flexor, causing them to miss the Pittsburgh game Sept. 30, which forced first-year tackle Kris Farris and rookie tackle Marques Sullivan into service. Then when Farris broke his leg in his first – and what threatens to be his only – NFL start, first-year tackle Jon Carman, fresh from the practice squad, came in for him.

But that's not all. There was a minor finger dislocation by center Bill Conaty vs. the Colts Sept. 23, forcing second-year guard/center Craig Heimburger in for a few plays. In all, through the first four games, nine different players played on the line. Some teams never play nine different offensive linemen through an entire season!

Fascinatingly, Vinklarek said that there wasn't a drop-off from starters to backups, only differences in things that individual players do well.

"These guys are going to have different attributes from one another. One may have a better punch than another guy; one guy may have a better pass move than another guy; some guy may run block a little bit better than the other guy. Sometimes you trade off different attributes," he said.

Still, the shuffled lineup means cohesion suffers – it just can't be built in the E.R. – though Vinklarek is right that the playing time can ultimately behoove the young players who are getting in there, while their counterparts heal up.

"Nobody wants to have any injuries," he said, "and you'd love to have guys play together longer, but what's going to pay off for us is that these guys have seen so many situations, that now what you will see when they've got three, four, five games under their belts, you are going to see a real strong unit; a more cohesive unit; one with better chemistry."

Overall, Vinklarek has been pleased with the line. After five weeks, the Buffalo passing game ranked 14th, averaging 222.5 yards per game. The Buffalo running game ranked 11th, averaging 121.0 yards per game. The 15 sacks given up, however, were fifth worst in the league. The worst was Seattle with 22, though it had played five games, compared to the Bills' four (as of Oct. 16). So, sadly, the worst is within Buffalo's reach.

In addition, Rob Johnson felt that out of the 14 sacks he's suffered this season, only two of them have been bad. So from that respect, the majority of the sacks have been due to faulty protection.

Vinklarek was reluctant to say whether the mistakes that resulted in sacks were mostly physical or mental errors.  "There are always a lot of different things that happen. Offsides – was that a physical or mental mistake? Everybody will say mental, and it is somewhat, because it deals with concentration, but maybe it has to do with switching assignments, so I say it's my fault. I didn't get the guy ready. I'll take the blame for anything like that. Because I'm the teacher and I'm the one who's got to keep them calmed down and within themselves when it's all said and done. And then they can get in a comfort zone, they can feel good about playing, they can feel good about the guy next to him. Any time you can create a better atmosphere, they are going to play better."

And he believes they're going to play better because of the fundamentals that he's stressing. He's constantly harping on technique – things like the steps a lineman takes to meet his blocks, the punches he uses in attacking a defensive lineman to keep him off balance, the leverage of his body in staying underneath the pads of the opponent, the hip flexion so that linemen are flexible enough to take on faster and more athletic opponents across from them.

"We stress the little things that are going to help a player out," he said. "Stance, starts, to fit, to finish, to fundamentals, to communication."

Vinklarek seems to drop a lot of these phrases into conversation – well, at least into interviews. He probably does the same for his young players – subtle reminders of what they have to do to improve. Apparently, as a result of the heavy technique emphasis by the coach, Brown and Fina offer very little of that type of instruction.

"Sometimes we just point out things that they wouldn't know because they haven't played in the league long enough," said Brown. "We know some defensive coordinators and the way they like to stunt guys; the way they like to run certain games and stuff like that; we tell our players how to be aware of certain things. That's basically the only thing that we can do. We can't tell them how to block better. They're gonna do that on their own progression. We can't tell them anything more than the things they can keep their eyes open for."

Besides, Vinklarek seems to be the technique guru. And so once those are mastered, what's the timeframe it will take for the Bills' line to flourish? Brown said there is no timeframe; that good players improve every week so that their game reaches the pinnacle by season's end. Jennings thought that because he was able to play the Oct. 7 Jets game effectively at only about 75- to 80-percent health (due to the hip flexor), it was an indication that the line was coming together well.

"When you've been with guys from Day One, you're able to move the ball," he said, explaining that being comfortable with the player next to him is a big key to making an offense work. "Hulsey knows what I'm doing, I know what Hulsey's doing. When you're going out playing and you're still banged up, it's all about chemistry and that will help you. If we didn't have chemistry, I probably would have really been on an island. But at 75, 80 percent, I was still able to compete."

And whether the guys like the coach or the coach likes the guys, they're all professionals and they all just want to compete. That's all they ask for.

Buffalo Football Report Top Stories