With Terrell Owens nonexistent. With Trent Edwards concussed (again). With Dick Jauron as the lamest of ducks. With the run defense getting gashed for 200 yards like clockwork. And with a training room in overflow, the Buffalo Bills should still be 4-2. Truth be told, they are two bonehead fumbles away from being in first place.
Pretty amazing, huh?
In Sunday's 16-13 overtime reprieve, the Bills proved there is a reservoir of resolve in the locker room. They teased that this season isn't lost after all.
Why? Because an identity may have been fortified. Swarm to the ball in the secondary. Run the ball. Limit mistakes. Sprinkle a big play in here or there. And maybe this season won't deteriorate into daily Google searches of "Mel Kiper + Quarterbacks."
The Bills are — get this — within striking range with the underachieving Carolina Panthers (2-3) and three defensively challenged AFC South teams. At the very least fans can remove the paper bags over their heads. This team is getting healthier and getting feistier — trends that will keep any team in any game.
Mark Sanchez was bad. Really bad. Billy Joe Hobert bad. But while the national media obsesses over Sanchez himself, it's clear a big reason for the rookie's implosion was Buffalo's ball-hawking secondary itself. The ring-bearer is Jairus Byrd. The same guy that had 17 interceptions as a cornerback at Oregon has had an awakening at safety. Instead of reading a receiver's hips and reacting to the ball at the last second, he is tracking the quarterback all play.
Getting Byrd in the second round was a steal. He has improved exponentially. It'll be awfully hard for Buffalo to keep him on the bench even at full strength.
Buffalo picked off Mark Sanchez (above) five times Sunday.
Outside of Byrd, Buffalo's pass defense is leak-free. That's been the key. Since getting spanked by Tom Brady in the fourth quarter of the season opener, the Bills haven't been burnt for back-breaking plays through the air. In the past four games, Perry Fewell's unit has allowed only one 30-yard reception to a wide receiver. Terrence McGee and Drayton Florence are veteran guys that don't blow assignments. Even before Sunday's breakthrough the signs were there. Drew Brees only threw for 172 yards at Buffalo and Derek Anderson went 2-of-17, playing like a deserted deer on the I-90 all along.
Now that Buffalo is finally getting heat on the quarterback — see: 14 sacks — the secondary has a chance to cash in on hurried throws. This cause-and-effect didn't exist last season.
Granted, Buffalo's run defense may be a season-long tumor. Even with Paul Posluszny back, the unit was devoured by Thomas Jones and Leon Washington. The Bills lack premier outside linebackers to box rushing plays inside to the big uglies. That's a problem that won't be fixed any time soon. But the secondary will give the team a fighting chance every Sunday. They have all year. It was just magnified in the Meadowlands.
The offense? First, once and for all, let's stop pretending that Terrell Owens and Lee Evans will work in some Fitzgerald/Boldin, Reed/Lofton, Clayton/Duper tandem. It's not happening. Ryan Fitzpatrick had the nerve to fling the ball downfield — previously foreign to Buffalo's offense. But any blind ambition in a no-huddle, aerial-assault offense finally evaporated Sunday. Buffalo dumped the hurry up for the ball-control scheme. And it worked.
A steady, no-nonsense diet of Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson must be the fabric of Buffalo's offense, no matter how many tantrums T.O. may throw behind the scenes. The punishing rushing duo combined for 113 yards on 34 carries against the Jets. Nothing glamorous, yet a starting point nonetheless. It looks like Jauron and Alex Van Pelt are finished kidding themselves with multi-receiver, air-it-out sets. The passing game must be complementary, a sudden punch in the gut. Fitzpatrick's 37-yard strike to Evans was the best example.
Marshawn Lynch (above) and Fred Jackson need to be the focal point of Buffalo's offense.
The personnel is in place for a season-long commitment to the run.
Buffalo's offensive line is maturing, particularly the interior. Rookies Eric Wood and Andy Levitre could be the meat and potatoes of this offense for a long time. There have been lumps, sure. But in six games, they've grown up fast.
At one point this season, Jackson was the NFL's fourth-leading rusher. He must be fed more. And Lynch remains the same old three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-bruises back. He must be fed, too. Rather than experiment in the passing game, Buffalo must rush the ball 40 times a game. Take a page of out of the 2008 Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers. Run to glory.
For at least one more week, jobs are safe at One Bills Drive. No question, the leashes are all short. Starting with Jauron. The upcoming stretch against mediocre opponents will ultimately decide who stays and who goes. To keep winning, the Bills must keep forcing turnovers and keep running the ball.
As the great John Wooden always preached, "Play to your strengths." Right now, it's obvious this is what the Bills do best.