Insiders: Around the AFC East 6/27/05

A look around the AFC East. The Buffalo Bills defense is good, but just "How Good" are they? The Miami Dolphins deal with the Ricky Williams issue and the retirement of Tim Bowens. The Jets have managed to lose every player who scored a point for them in the 2004 playoffs, what will they do about it. Insiders Report covers these topics as the Patriots division rivals prepare for 2005.

PHOTO: Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna is sacked by Buffalo Bills DT Sam Adams (95) Dec 19, 2004 (AP Photo/David Kohl). Adams was a key factor in helping Buffalo to a top-5 ranking for their defense in 2005.

Around the AFC East
By Scout.com Staff

BUFFALO BILLS

So just how good was Buffalo's No. 2-ranked defense last season?

According to NFL research, the Bills allowed only one touchdown drive of less than four plays in 2004, a league-low. The last team to do that was the 2001 Chicago Bears.

The St. Louis Rams' 1-play, 18-yard touchdown drive in a 33-17 loss at Buffalo in Week 10 was the only instant-offense performed against the Bills. They did allow four TD drives of four plays.

"We stress that we don't want to give up any big plays early and that we want to make offenses work to get first downs," defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said. "The longer the opposing offense is on the field and the more they have to work for yards, the greater the chance that they will make a mistake which our defense can capitalize on."

That patient philosophy was behind Buffalo leading the NFL in takeaways with 39. Buffalo finished in the top five in TDs allowed (29), yards allowed (264.2), passing yards allowed (164.0), and sacks registered (45).

Meanwhile, Buffalo's defense knew how to set a mean second-half tone. It allowed only 12 points in the third quarter all season, a team record for a quarter, and second best in NFL history behind the nine points allowed by Miami (also in the third) in 2000.

Interestingly, the AFC East has been a division where offenses have to work hard for their points. Since the start of 2003, the Bills, Patriots and Jets have surrendered the fewest TD drives of less than four plays in the NFL at five each.

Gray said New England, which has won two of the past three Super Bowls with swarming team defense, is the carrot his unit keeps chasing.

"If you can close the gap on those guys, you pretty much closed the cap on everybody else in the league," he said.

Opponents that scored on Buffalo in 2004 worked for it, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars who drove 80 yards in 14 plays and scored with 0:00 on the clock to beat the Bills 13-10 in the regular-season opener.

NOTES

--CB Jonathan Palafox experienced the highs and lows of pro football this month, winning the World Bowl with NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals then being cut by Buffalo. Palafox was injured for much of the Admirals season but he returned to play special teams and appeared in the Admirals' 27-21 victory over Berlin in the World Bowl. Palafox could re-sign with the Bills as the need arises. At Angelo State, he registered 274 tackles and 10 interceptions, which is the kind of production Buffalo looks for.

--Two more Bills have been elected to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame: linebackers Mike Stratton and Shane Conlan. Stratton was a member of the Bills' 1964 and '65 AFL champions; Conlan played on three AFC championship clubs and was a three-time Pro Bowl pick. Stratton's legacy was secured thanks to his "shot heard 'round the world" tackle of San Diego Chargers running back Keith Lincoln in Buffalo's 20-7 win over San Diego in the 1964 AFL title game. Lincoln fumbled, was knocked out of the game, and the momentum swung sharply in Buffalo's favor. "If it hadn't been for that hit, I probably would not have been recognized nearly so nicely as I have been," Stratton said.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

With new starters at left tackle (Mike Gandy) and left guard (Bennie Anderson), there's no shortage of concerns about Buffalo's offensive line heading into training camp. Many of those concerns, however, can be eased if right tackle Mike Williams finally plays to his potential.

The massive fourth overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft has flashed periods of brilliance, and after a slow start last season played well the last three quarters of the season when Buffalo won nine of its final 12 games.

Through spring drills, Williams appeared to be in his best shape, both physically and mentally. Last year, he had some excused and unexcused absences while dealing with a myriad of personal issues. A close relative passed away and he also had gotten some bad financial advice. Unable to focus on his job with the Bills under then new coach Mike Mularkey, Williams weight shot up over 400 pounds when he showed up for camp. He was fined and briefly lost his starting job.

This year, he vowed to reporters to "hit the ground running."

If so, the Bills will do their running behind the 6-6, 375-pounder who has enormous brute strength.


MIAMI DOLPHINS

Miami coach Nick Saban remains coy about the future of Ricky Williams, but all signs continue to point toward the retired tailback making a comeback with the Dolphins in late July.

Williams officially moved back to South Florida last week and is expected to begin intense training for his return after spending the last year out of football. Agent Leigh Steinberg said the Dolphins have given Williams a copy of their off-season workout program. Williams also is working with a nutritionist again to regain bulk after Sports Illustrated reported he weighed 195 pounds after returning from a trip to India in early May.

Agent Leigh Steinberg also said Williams was granted permission for early re-entry into the NFL's substance-abuse program, which means he faces 10 drug tests a month for the remainder of his football career. A failed or missed test would result in a mandatory one-year suspension for Williams, who is a three-time offender in the program for marijuana use.

During a media roundtable last Thursday, Saban declined to elaborate on whether he has recently spoken with Williams or the timetable for his official return. Miami holds its first training camp practice July 25, but Williams may not be allowed to return until two days later because that would mark the one-year anniversary of his retirement from football. Because of his standing as a three-time offender in the NFL's drug-testing program, a return before one year had passed would result in a mandatory one-year suspension.

Saban, though did agree to stress a "philosophical point" when it comes to Williams, whose return he has courted throughout the off-season.

"I basically believe in people," Saban said. "I basically am always willing to try to support and help people in what they want to do until they give me some reason not to do that. It's as simple as that.

"People learn. They invest time in things to try to learn. What we try to find out is what have you learned about yourself and how can we help you? But it's really everybody's responsibility, regardless of what we're talking about or who we're talking about, to do the things they need to do to try to be successful at what they choose to do."

Saban also addressed the belief that Williams' return will trigger a media circus surrounding his team throughout the preseason.

"I think that it's going to be up to the team not to allow it to be that and to focus on what we need to focus on as a team to be successful," Saban said. "It only matters if we let it matter."

NOTES

--The Dolphins announced they would hold their first training camp practice July 25 at team headquarters in Davie. Ten of Miami's 34 practices will be held at night, which is a higher percentage than in the past. Saban said that was done to help keep players fresher and give fans a better opportunity to watch practice. One session on August 5 will be held at Dolphins Stadium.

--Agent Drew Rosenhaus said recently released defensive tackle Tim Bowens won't be immediately filing retirement papers with the NFL in hopes of possibly making a comeback in 2006. Rosenhaus, though, said the 32-year-old Bowens would have to make a significant recovery from a back injury that derailed his 11-year NFL career.


NEW YORK JETS

Quarterback Chad Pennington continues his rehab from offseason shoulder surgery, throwing about 80 passes - ranging from 10 to 35 yards - every other day. He's been adding velocity gradually and said he'll be ready for the start of training camp on July 29.

When Newsday caught up with Pennington at an autograph signing last week, the reporter asked Pennington to rate his ability to throw on a 1-10 scale and he said it was at a six.

Pennington underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff back in early February, an injury he played the last seven games of the season with, including two playoff games. That's a situation that convinces Pennington he'll be ready for training camp and be ready to start the season opener on Sept. 11 in Kansas City.

"If I can play with a torn rotator cuff, I know I can play with a surgically repaired shoulder," Pennington told Newsday.

The Jets are likely to hold Pennington to a less rigorous schedule during the start of training camp and possibly for the entire camp. He may be limited to just one practice session a day, that's why the Jets were determined to bring in a veteran back backup, signing Jay Fiedler from the Dolphins.

In his workouts so far, Pennington said his arm feels fine and has had no problems whatsoever.

"My shoulder feels better now than it ever has over the past three years," Pennington told Newsday. "It doesn't feel like there are any hitches in there, anything floating around or any clicks and pops."

Assuming Pennington has no physical limitations at the start of the season - something of a big assumption - he still needs to make up the time lost physically learning and working in new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger's system, which will call for more deep throws from Pennington.

Pennington said his goal is to have the Jets ranked in the top five in points scored, with at least 24 points per game. The Jets averaged 20.8 points per game last season.

NOTES

--Over the past two seasons, the New York Jets have been tied with the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots for the fewest touchdowns in the NFL on scoring drives of less than four plays. Each club has allowed only five such touchdowns in the past two years.

--With the release of SS Reggie Tongue, the Jets are now without any of the players who scored points for them in the playoffs last year. TE Anthony Becht (signed by Tampa Bay as a free agent) and Santana Moss (traded to Washington) scored touchdowns in the win over San Diego and Moss added a punt return for a score against Pittsburgh. K Doug Brien, with field goals in both games, was released after the Jets used their second-round pick on kicker Mike Nugent. Tongue scored on an interception return against Pittsburgh in the postseason but was released because of inconsistent play.

MEDICAL WATCH: QB Chad Pennington is throwing about 80 times every other day, his first throwing since undergoing surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. Pennington's workouts will be likely be scaled back in training camp anyway - camp tentatively starts July 28 - and both he and the Jets have predicted he'll be ready to play by the season opener.


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