If 2007 serves as any barometer, the Buffalo Bills offensive line is as hot and cold as it gets. The pass protection was superb, while the run blocking achieved pedestrian status at best.
The pass blocking allowed only 26 sacks last year; a dramatic improvement compared to 47 surrendered in 2006. Of course, that had a lot to do with Trent Edwards taking over at quarterback. Edwards simply gets rid of the football a lot quicker than J.P. Losman. He was sacked two fewer times despite having 94 more attempts than Losman last season. To give him a little credit, Losman actually improved over his 2006 season when he was sacked a mind-blowing 47 times.
Apart from who's behind center, a lot of credit went to a line revamped with three new starters. Langston Walker was a calamity in Oakland but came to Buffalo as a free agent and prospered at right tackle. How much? Walker was personally responsible for 10.5 sacks with Oakland. With Buffalo he gave up only 2.25. Derrick Dockery came from Washington at left guard and was workmanlike. Brad Butler was inserted into the starting right guard role and improved as the year went on. He was rewarded with a contract extension, albeit not the linemen most fans expected or hoped to see secure a brand new deal.
The line was anchored by Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, who carved a reputation as one of the elite linemen in the league. Collectively, the line allowed a sack on only 5.5 percent of passing plays. That's in stark contrast to the 9.5 percent of plays the year before, behind an overmatched line that included Chris Villarrial, Mike Gandy and Terrence Pennington.
Sadly, the run blocking told a different tale. Sure, the team averaged 4.0 yards per carry and 112.5 rushing yards per game, a mild improvement over 2006. But the line ran into far too many snags opening holes, especially in short yardage situations.
It could be more of the same this year, chiefly because of the ugly Peters holdout dragging into the regular season. Kirk Chambers is a journeyman forced into a starting role. Even the most optimistic Bills fan can't help but detect the gaping difference in talent linking the two. To his credit, Chambers has looked adequate during preseason work with the first team. Realistically however, the game changes when the regular season commences and defenses start to show hands nobody sees in glorified exhibition games.
Maybe the switch over the short term---very short term, might not be as bad as some think. Peters, as great as he is, excels more in pass blocking than when the Bills run. The offense, led by new coordinator Turk Schonert, looks to be a fast moving offense with a lot of shifting and quick timing pass routes. I expect them to be far more committed to getting Marshawn Lynch involved in the passing game. Buffalo could survive for at least a couple of weeks with Chambers starting.
What could end up crippling the line more is forcing Walker into a left tackle spot he's admittedly not cozy with. Walker thrived on the right side last year and expecting him to stand out on the left may be biting off more than even the big man can chew. Walker's held his own during the preseason but things could change in a Patrick Kerney minute; when speed, multiple blitzes and stunts are sure to come his way, the very things Peters is best at bottling up.
What I find most peculiar about this line is this: For all their mass, they should be more strapping as road graters than they show, yet they're marvelous finesse blockers in the passing game. This warrants change for Buffalo to win the closer games, especially later in the season. Dockery, Walker and Butler need to play with a large nasty streak to open holes for Lynch and Fred Jackson while maintaining their penchant for protecting Edwards.
Regardless if or when Peters takes the trouble to show up, the organization better pray the injury bug that took such a bite out of last year's team doesn't devour anyone from the offensive line. The depth behind the starters verges on woeful and quite frankly, this team has little chance should any starter, other than possibly Melvin Fowler, go down.
Duke Preston enters his fourth season as a backup center/guard and despite multiple opportunities to be a starter has flunked miserably. Jason Whittle was supposed to provide quality depth but at this point the only physical activity with him involves team trainers. Demetrius Bell is a project with talent, but not even close to being ready to step on the field in a game that means something. Matt Murphy, like Peters, is a converted tight end. Regrettably, that's about the only thing the two have in common.
The Bills, for better or worse, have remained staunch in not giving Peters any new money for 2008. Peters has been similarly stubborn in his refusal to report and looks primed to eat nearly $192,000 of salary for each game missed. Reports indicate the sides haven't even spoken in a month. It's come to a point, regardless of what side of the fence you reside on, it's lose-lose for everyone involved. Peters is learning the hard way you can't bully this front office.
Don't let the preseason fool you. The defenses Buffalo played against were just as vanilla as the one we ran. That changes in a few days, when Seattle and their nasty front seven come to town- even without the suspended Rocky Bernard.
While Chambers is a starter in a backup's body and Walker is playing at a position he isn't suited for, the Bills may be able to squeak by a few games without Peters. However, despite the dreams of enthusiastic Bills fans, you don't lose your franchise left tackle and improve a unit that's been merely serviceable to begin with.
Stay tuned to the BFR for more previews all week