Bills Inside Slant

With 1,017 yards rushing in his last nine games, running back Travis Henry has emerged as Buffalo's MVP and perhaps its most respected player in the locker room. That's because Henry hasn't only played with a laundry list of injuries, but he has produced big numbers in the process.

In the three and a half games since cracking his right fibula, Henry has gained 395 yards on 88 carries, a 4.5 average, and the Bills have won twice in no small measure because of his gritty, inspirational play. Winning those games over the New York Giants and Jets has Buffalo (6-7) still clinging to playoff hopes heading into Sunday's game at Tennessee (9-4), a team that has lost two in a row and is desperate to end its bleeding. "It's obvious how fresh his legs are but he's a tough individual anyway and as I said (Sunday), there were many times he brought his own blocker," said coach Gregg Williams, referring to Henry's career-best 169-yard day against the Jets when he ran over would-be tacklers like bowling pins. "It was even more fun to watch the film. There were times where guys were not really excited about going and finding him to tackle him. He even excites me and the coaches on the sideline when he does some of those extra-effort things. It was fun to see the team rally behind him." The question remains: will the front office do the same? Henry, who a year ago ran for more than 1,400 yards and made the Pro Bowl in his second season, has been running scared, in many people's eyes, this season after the Bills went out and spent their first-round pick last April on University of Miami star Willis McGahee. McGahee has yet to take the field after recovering from major knee surgery and without seeing him in game action and knowing if he'll be the NFL superstar some projected before his injury, it's not likely general manager Tom Donahoe would trade Henry. But Donahoe admits his phone could be ringing a lot this off-season after the season Henry has put together, solidifying his standing as an elite ball carrier. The 25-year-old Henry, who is just 63 yards shy of becoming Buffalo's fourth all-time rusher, has said he can't envision a situation where both he and McGahee share the football in harmony. Henry thrives on work and he has assumed that either he or McGahee will be traded eventually. "We'll always listen but we're not going to be actively pursing something like that (with Travis)," Donahoe said. "Who's to say what's going to happen in the future, but we didn't take Willis with the intention of doing something with Travis." Certainly not until McGahee establishes himself, and maybe not at all. Donahoe said having two top ball carriers isn't a luxury given the physical demands of the position. He does believe it's possible to keep two top backs happy. "A lot of teams in this league have two outstanding running backs playing at the same time," he said. "One year in Pittsburgh, we had Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris each gain 1,000 yards. Both (Henry and McGahee) are two very talented football players and a good coaching staff will figure out a way to utilize them. You shouldn't jump to conclusions (about a trade)." Donahoe went on to add: "We don't have any decision to make. We'll go into next year with two outstanding running backs and we'll see what happens." It's clear that if Henry isn't the designated No. 1 back, however, there will be problems. Henry's agent, Greg Johnson, is reluctant to make this an issue at the moment, but he is hopeful that because Henry has laid it on the line for the Bills this season, playing with his broken leg against the wishes of loved ones, he would be rewarded with loyalty from the coaching staff in 2004. "Travis is happy in Buffalo," Johnson said. "I do know he's one of best the running backs in the NFL, easily one of the top five. I think the Bills feel that way, too. But with Willis McGahee, they have a decision to make. As it relates to trade value, I'd rather not comment. I prefer Travis stays with Buffalo and so does he. But it has to make sense. Good business sense, good football sense. "The bottom line is that Travis wants to be treated like he's ... the star and right now he is. Until it's not like that, he's excited and he's happy. That's why he's putting everything on the line because he knows the Bills are behind him and he wants them to continue to be." Trading Henry would be a difficult thing for his teammate to rationalize. "I would be really surprised by that," quarterback Drew Bledsoe said. "Travis is a very unique football player, there aren't many guys who can do what he does from the standpoint of breaking tackles, getting yards after the first hit. And Travis is a guy who has become, without saying a word, a leader on this team just because of his attitude, his professionalism and his work ethic." Guard Ruben Brown, who blocked for Thurman Thomas, the Bills' all-time rusher, said that were it his call, he'd show Henry a lot of love for what he's done for the team. "Anybody who thinks he should be traded is an idiot," Brown said. "He's as productive a runner as there is in the league, and he's as tough as they come. I mean, he's doing this on a broken leg. He's a warrior." Yes, in a game where everybody plays with pain, Henry's teammates are in awe of him. "He's amazing," 12-year veteran fullback Sam Gash said. "It really speaks for his heart and professionalism but also his talent. All guys play hurt but Travis is producing as well." SERIES HISTORY: 40th meeting, the third since the Houston Oilers franchise relocated to Nashville in 1997 and renamed themselves the Titans. Oilers/Titans lead 23-16 and clubs have played two of the most memorable wild-card playoff games in NFL history. In 1993 in Buffalo, the Bills rallied from a 32-point deficit to win 41-38 in overtime, the league's all-time greatest playoff comeback. In 1999 in Tennessee, the Titans paid back the favor in dramatic form, winning 22-16 on a kickoff touchdown return in the closing seconds, the result of a controversial cross-field lateral from Frank Wycheck to Kevin Dyson. The play was dubbed "Home Run Throwback" and the game, "The Music City Miracle." Only six Bills remain with the team who played in that game: Ruben Brown, Eric Moulds, Antoine Winfield, Sam Gash, Alex Van Pelt and Pat Williams. Eleven Titans are still with their team. Ironically, three Titans coaches that day now coach the Bills: head coach Gregg Williams, running backs coach Les Steckel, and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. Bills safeties coach Steve Jackson was a defensive back for the Oilers in Buffalo's '93 comeback when Frank Reich threw four second-half TDs. NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES --It will be an emotional game for Bills head coach Gregg Williams facing his old team, the Houston/Tennessee Titans on Sunday The Coliseum. Williams worked 11 seasons for the organization, working his way up from quality control coach to defensive coordinator for Jeff Fisher. Williams was the architect behind Tennessee's No. 1-ranked defense in 2000. His '99 unit led the NFL in combined sacks and turnovers with 94 when the Titans advanced to the Super Bowl. "At this point, it's just about our football team getting better, in all honesty," said Williams, trying to downplay the personal nature of the game. "I've got my best friend in coaching over on the (Titans) staff. It has nothing to do with anything other than our football team winning the next game. We have to go down there and beat a very formidable opponent." A win on the road against a good team would be a coup for Williams as he scrambles to retain his job in Buffalo. The Bills haven't won a significant road game under Williams in over a year (23-10 at Miami in October, 2002) and his overall mark on the road is 7-15. Williams had a Tennessee homecoming dress rehearsal in the preseason when the Bills lost 37-24, committing 16 penalties, three turnovers and giving up four sacks. Aren't bragging rights at stake at least? "Yeah, he may have to cook the steak when we go fishing in the off-season, but other than that, you know, I've got great respect for him. He's done a good job up there considering the circumstances and he's got them playing hard," Fisher said of Williams. --How realistic are Buffalo's chances of snagging a wild-card playoff berth? At 6-7, the Bills trail four teams for the two spots (Tennessee, 9-4; Denver, 8-5; Miami, 8-5; Cincinnati, 7-6). A final record of 9-7 or even 8-8 would put Buffalo in a tie-breaker race, but they need to win out and have the other clubs stumble a bit. Buffalo can take care of its own business with head-to-head games against Tennessee and Miami and it already owns a win over the Bengals. "We don't have a choice but to think we can," said DT Sam Adams when asked if the Bills can make the post-season. "Someone always gets in at 9-7, always. The people that are going to the playoffs, New England, Tennessee, we play Miami. As far as we're concerned, they have to go through us." --A consistent pass rush and lack of takeaways are the big knocks on Buffalo's No. 2-ranked defense, but sacks are way up in recent weeks. After getting just 14 through eight games, Buffalo has 17 in its last five games. DE Aaron Schobel has come on and now has a team-best 8.5 sacks, followed by DT Sam Adams with 5.0. The Bills had six sacks against the Giants and five against the Jets the past two games. "We got after them," Schobel said. "The offense did a good job, and got us into situations where they had to throw the ball again. Everybody's playing hard and everybody's covering, that's important, too. It's a team stat (sacks are)." --QB Drew Bledsoe on why the offense has been much more effective the past three games, averaging 18.3 points each game after going three consecutive games without a touchdown: "We know why it didn't work, we watched the plays. The games where we lost four in a row there, we just didn't make the plays. So we put ourselves behind the Eight Ball now. I think you've seen a display of the character on this team, with the effort we've put on the field the last couple weeks." --More evidence the Bills are getting better, albeit a bit too late. In their first eight games, they were among the NFL's most penalized teams with 64 for 564 yards. Over the past five games, they've committed just 24 penalties for 184 yards. That's an average drop of eight penalties for 70.5 yards per game to 4.8 for 36.8. --And also from the Dept. of Numbers: The Bills have not lost when they've scored 15 or more points and haven't won when they've failed to score at least 15 points. BY THE NUMBERS: 37 -- The Bills turnover/takeaway differential in nearly three seasons under Coach Gregg Williams. That's 89 giveaways vs. 52 takeaways. QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't blame the Jets for not wanting to try and tackle him after awhile. Getting in front of him is like getting in front of a speeding car." -- Bills owner Ralph Wilson after watching RB Travis Henry bruise his way to a career-best 169 yards against the Jets. STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL There were many skeptics when the Bills signed veteran DT Sam Adams to shore up their defense, which ranked 29th against the run and 27th in points allowed last season. The rap on the 350-pound Adams was that he was too heavy to be an every down player. So much for false advertising. The Bills have made dramatic leaps defensively in nearly every statistical category kept by the league, currently ranking No. 2 in yards and No. 2 in points allowed, and a big reason is Adams. Paired with Pat Williams, the Bills have been hard to run on, just as planned. Since allowing 343 yards in consecutive losses to Miami and Philadelphia early in the season, the Bills have yielded an average of just 79 yards rushing per game. The New York Jets got a full dose of Adams last Sunday when he finished with seven tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage, two sacks and a batted down pass. It was one of the few games where Adams was part of Buffalo's third-down package, and he responded like a kid in a candy store with the extra snaps. The reason was the Jets using less three- and four-wide receiver sets. "They kept some of their two-wide receiver packages on third down and we kept some of our big guys out there plus we rotated Sam in," coach Gregg Williams explained. "He even played on some of the packages he normally doesn't play on because he was winning those battles. He was kind of in a zone and (line coach) Tim (Krumrie) did a very good job incorporating him in on some packages he hadn't normally been in on." Krumrie rewards players who do well with playing time and Adams has earned his. On the year, Adams has 22 tackles, 5 sacks (his most since 1997), 1 interception, and two passes defended. Jumping from Seattle to Baltimore to Oakland to Buffalo in a span of five years looks as if Adams can't keep a job, but the truth is that he was a cap victim in Baltimore and Oakland and it was no coincidence those teams played for Super Bowl championships with him in the lineup, the Ravens winning it all in 2000. Adams has a four-year, incentive-laden deal with Buffalo and is playing like he intends to earn those perks. "Why would I want to come off the field? I'm an All-Pro. I've proven I can play in this league," Adams said. "Who says those things? Well, they have to say things when you leave an organization, it's never a positive thing when you leave, so people say things to cover up what they did. But like I said, that's why we play the game. I go out and play at a Pro Bowl level. My goal is to help my team and I've proven I can dominate." PERSONNEL/INJURY NOTES: --RB Sammy Morris, who has missed the past two games with a knee injury, is questionable for the Titans but was able to practice on Wednesday. --OG Mike Pucillo, who has missed the past two games with turf toe, remains questionable for the Titans game but was able to practice. --TE Dave Moore, who suffered a concussion two weeks ago against the Giants, was able to play against the Jets last Sunday but did have a catch. He did throw some nice blocks, however, as the Bills ran for a season-best 203 yards. --CB Terrence McGee, Buffalo's starting nickel back, injured an ankle against the Giants but was able to play against the Jets and came up with his fist NFL interception. --DE Keith McKenzie (leg) is questionable but is back at practice. --LB Dominique Stevenson, one of the team's top special team's hitters, was sent home on Wednesday after feeling sick. GAME PLAN: Keeping its red-hot rushing game on track won't be easy for Buffalo against a Tennessee team ranked No. 1 against the run and sells all out in stopping the ground game. The Titans haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 27 straight home games. To loosen those eight- and nine-man fronts, the Bills have to hit some plays in the passing game and it's imperative that Drew Bledsoe, Eric Moulds, Bobby Shaw and Josh Reed are in sync. Some long, clock-eating drives would help keep the score close. If Buffalo falls behind, it will be an uphill climb throwing the ball against Tennessee's pass rush and its crowd noise. The Titans do expect banged up starting QB Steve McNair (calf, ankle) to play, but if they have to turn to Billy Volek, the Bills will be familiar with him. Volek went 10 of 16 for 127 yards and two TDs in Tennessee's 37-24 victory over Buffalo in the preseason. MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Bills CB Antoine Winfield vs. Titans WR Justin McCareins. McCareins caught three passes for 57 yards and two TDs in preseason game against Buffalo and Bills can't fall asleep against him overshadowing Derrick Mason (76 catches, 1,032 yards, 6 TDs). --Bills RB Travis Henry vs. Titans front seven, Henry gave Tennessee a quick workout in Buffalo's preseason loss, tearing off a 62-yard run to set up a touchdown. He's had five 100-plus yard games in his last seven but Titans are No. 1 in run defense, giving up 79 yards per game. Titans haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 27 consecutive home games. --Bills QB Drew Bledsoe vs. Titans CB Samari Rolle, Bills need to hit some pass plays to soften up Tennessee's eight-man front, and Pro Bowler Rolle has a sore lower leg. --Bills SS Lawyer Milloy vs. Titans TE Frank Wycheck, Good TEs always give Bills fits and Wycheck has 500 catches for his career, just the fourth TE in NFL history with that many. --Bills OT Mike Williams and OT Marques Sullivan vs. Titans DE Kevin Carter and Jevon Kearse, Kearse (9.5) and Carter (4.5) have a combined 14 sacks and Bills blockers will have their hands full in noisy road venue. INJURY IMPACT: The Bills started backup linemen Marques Sullivan and Ross Tucker against the New York Jets and ran for a season-best 203 yards. Developing depth isn't easy in the era of the salary cap, but the Bills have gotten good productivity from Sullivan, Tucker and veteran Marcus Price up front. Sullivan, who lost his starting job to Mike Pucillo at right guard coming out of training camp, didn't even dress for the first eight games. While Price was expected to start against the Jets in place of Jonas Jennings, who is out for the season with a broken toe, the coaching staff decided to give Sullivan a look and he responded strong. It's now believed Sullivan will finish out the year at left tackle and will head into 2004 on firmer ground, perhaps moving into position to challenge for a starting guard spot again, though he seems best suited at tackle. "NFL players go through adversity," Sullivan said. "I couldn't get down on myself. Throughout this whole year, I kept the team fist and didn't worry about myself."

Buffalo Football Report Top Stories