With a veteran QB and lots of offensive and defensive talent at key positions the expectation level from the front office and their fans is high.
Mularkey, who last year was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, has built an experienced coaching staff on offense and retained all but one defensive coach from a staff that led the stop unit to a second place finish in overall defense in 2003.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray runs an attacking scheme that blitzes linebackers and defensive backs from every position imaginable. The idea is to create confusion for the offense and making plays when they present themselves.
Mularkey pulled off two big coups when he convinced former head coach Sam Wyche to coach the quarterbacks and the legendary Jim McNally to coach the offensive line. Offensive coordinator Tom Clemens will work with Mularkey to establish a balanced, yet dynamic attack based on the considerable talents of his offensive standouts.
Offense: Veteran QB Drew Bledsoe is on the downside of a marvelous career. Bledsoe followed up a career season in 2002 with a very mediocre 2003 campaign. He completed 58.2% of his passes for 2,860 yards 11 TDs and 14 INTs. He was sacked 49 times and knocked down even more. Bledsoe has never been nimble and at times he seemed shell-shocked. His lack of mobility and decision-making made him a sitting duck for opposing defenses and he took a beating all season.
Hurting Bledsoe in 2003 was the lack of a playmaker opposite superstar wideout Eric Moulds. In 2002 teams were not able to double-team Moulds because WR Peerless Price (now with Atlanta) was having a Pro Bowl season. Also contributing was the mid-season groin injury that Moulds suffered and was hampered by it for the remainder of the season.
When Moulds is healthy he is one of the best in the business. Moulds is big and strong (6’2” 215 lbs) and he has enough speed to be a threat down field. He caught 64 passes for 780 yards and only one touchdown. He is superb at running intermediate routes and he is dangerous after the catch.
The three players who will vie for the spot opposite Moulds are five-year veteran Bobby Shaw, third-year man Josh Reed and rookie Lee Evans. Shaw is a great possession receiver who is adept at finding soft spots in zones. In 2003 Shaw caught 56 passes for 732 yards and four TDs.
Reed, who was an excellent third receiver in 2002 as a rookie, is also adept at short and intermediate routes and he excels after the catch. Reed put way to much pressure on himself trying to replace Price and should ease back nicely into the third spot.
Evans is a playmaker from anywhere on the field because of his amazing speed. Evans is a polished route-runner (rare for a rookie) who has great hands and gets in and out of his breaks quickly. Look for Evans to start opposite Moulds with Shaw and Reed providing solid depth and even more options for Bledsoe.
At running back the Bills have a conundrum. Starter Travis Henry has been excellent the last two seasons rushing for 2,794 yards and 23 TDs. Even with all his success his problems are two-fold. He isn’t a gamebreaker and he has trouble, at times, hanging onto the ball (seven fumbles in 2003). Henry is at his best between the tackles and he is able to make cuts once he gets to the line and slide for extra yardage. Henry is also one of the toughest players in the league, fighting through torn rib cartilage and only missing one start last season.
Contributing to the problem for the Bills is that second-year man Willis McGahee, when he is 100%, is better in every area than Henry. McGahee suffered a horrific knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2002 season and he spent the entire regular season rehabbing. McGahee is explosive and he can score from anywhere on the field. It is worth noting that both have stated they can coexist, but this situation should be watched closely.
The Bills have talented pieces along the offensive front, but they have yet to put it all together. Enter McNally who has gotten more out of much less talent with other lines. RT Mike Williams and LT Jonas Jennings are both athletically gifted bookend tackles. Williams is the star…he is massive (6’8” 380 lbs) and he just overwhelms opponents with his size. He is surprisingly nimble for a big man and with the proper coaching he could be destined for perennial All Pro status. Jennings has long arms and great feet. He has struggled with injuries during his first three seasons, most recently a hip pointer that caused him to miss four games, but when he is healthy he is very solid.
C Trey Teague is not imposing physically, but he is tenacious, intelligent and his work ethic allows him to be an above-average pivot. At LG will be a trio of players trying to replace the since departed Reuben Brown. Ross Tucker, Marques Sullivan and Mike Pucillo have all started and each blocks well enough to start on a regular basis. Rounding out the group is eight-year veteran RG Chris Villarrial who was a solid pickup in free agency from Chicago.
Defense: While the offense disappointed in 2003 the defense was markedly improved. Gray and his staff blitzed and harassed teams to death and finished second in the NFL in overall defense surrendering only 269.6 yards per game. The Bills also finished fifth in the NFL in 2003 allowing only 17.4 points per game.
Up front the Bills have solid players who can stuff the run and also pressure the passer. DTs Sam Adams and Pat Williams are huge, quick tackles who are strong at the point of attack. Williams has a knack for stuffing plays in the backfield and he is quicker than most of the interior lineman he is matched up against. Adams’ lower body strength and quick first step have allowed him to be the premier run-stuffer in the league for the last 10 seasons.
DE Aaron Schobel had an excellent season in 2003. He registered 11.5 sacks and with his exceptional quickness and speed he is a relentless pass-rusher. While he is only adequate at playing the run, he has improved his strength and bulk over his three seasons. On the strong-side, DE’s Ryan Denney and Chris Kelsay, a second-rounder in 2003 who didn’t see many snaps last year, will battle it out during camp. Kelsay is the better athlete and is even quicker than Schobel. He has the skills and talent to become an every down player in the near future.
At linebacker the Bills have one of the best trios in the league. The star is weakside linebacker Takeo Spikes. Spikes made his first Pro Bowl in 2003 registering 126 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble, two interceptions and eight passes defensed. He’s a gifted athlete who can dominate at times and his presence makes offenses focus on knowing where he is at all times.
MLB London Fletcher led the Bills in 2003 with 133 tackles and probably should have made the Pro Bowl. Fletcher is active, makes plays from sideline-to-sideline and is a fiery leader for the defense.
Strongside linebacker Jeff Posey has the size and speed necessary to run with tight ends down the field and engage tackles at the point of attack. On passing downs, fans can expect to see more of Posey at end as he has improved his pass-rushing skills over time.
When CB Antoine Winfield left via free agency a huge hole was left in the Bills secondary. Enter perennial NFC Pro Bowler Troy Vincent who still has some life left in his 33 year-old legs. Vincent is a big corner who is good at either man-to-man and zone defense. On the other side is three-year veteran Nate Clements. Clements led the team with three interceptions and scored a touchdown on one of them. Clements has all the qualities to be a great corner in the NFL. However, he relies too much on his talent and less on technique to get by. He gambles too much and while that tends to get him in trouble, he is great when the ball is in the air. Vincent’s presence should allow Clements to reach his full potential.
The Bills made a great pickup the week before the 2003 regular season when former New England safety Lawyer Milloy was released and they nabbed him. Milloy isn’t as good in coverage as he used to be, but he is like an extra linebacker when he comes up to stuff the run and he is one of the emotional leaders of the defense. His attitude flows through the defense and he gets the other players fired up to make plays.
FS Izell Reese was another quality pickup in free agency in 2003. He solidified the deep patrol with solid recognition skills and great range.
While the Bills defense improved from 15th in 2002 to second last season they still must cause more turnovers. They only registered 18 in 2003 (10 INT’s and 8 fumbles) and Gray hopes to improve that stat with more pressure on the QB.
Special Teams: Former Seahawk kicker Rian Lindell was adequate last season hitting 24/24 PAT’s but only 70.8% of his field goal attempts. His kickoffs are short, and while he has an above-average leg he was not accurate outside of 40 yards (3 of 9 from outside 40 yards). On the other hand, P Brian Moorman has established himself as one of the best punters in the league. He averaged 44.5 yards per punt and his net of 37.8 yards per punt finished him eighth in the league.
The last time the Seahawks and Bills met: In the midst of a roller-coaster ride of a 2001 season, the Seahawks headed to upstate New York to face the Bills on November 18th, 2001.
This was a game where the stats belied the final result on the scoreboard.
Seahawks K Rian Lindell registered the only scoring in the first quarter kicking a 40-yarder with two minutes left in the opening stanza.
Rookie wideout Koren Robinson scored his first ever TD when QB Matt Hasselbeck hit him in the back of the endzone on a seven-yard scoring pass.
Young Bills QB Alex Van Pelt then hit WR Peerless Price on a 16-yarder to cut the lead to 10-7. Buffalo then tied the score at 10 apiece when K Jake Ariens nailed a 25-yard field goal with only 19 seconds left in the half.
With the opening possession of the second half the Seahawks took the lead again as RB Shaun Alexander went over from one-yard out.
Ariens then kicked another field and Lindell followed that with two on successive drives. The Seahawks were leading 23-13 with 3:12 left on the clock. All that confidence they had mustered with a 10 point lead was completely washed away when Van Pelt, working out of the no-huddle offense, drove the bills down the field completing a 16-yard TD to TE Jay Riemersma with 1:23 remaining.
As the Bills lined up for the onside kick, the Seahawks put in their “hands team”. CB Shawn Springs recovered the high-bouncing kick and the Seahawks headed west with a 23-20 nailbiter.
The Seahawks offense could only muster 16 first downs and 246 yards of total offense. Alexander had a solid day running 25 times for 93 yards and a TD. Hasselbeck was proficient completing 16 of 23 passes for 134 yards and the TD to Robinson.
Van Pelt had the best game of his career, completing 28 of 42 passes for 316 yards and two TD’s. RB Travis Henry had a miserable day rushing for only 29 yards. Price was the leading receiver for the bills with 138 yards on 10 catches and the one touchdown.
The Seahawks lead the series 6-3 and have a 5-2 record at home against the Bills.
2004 Projection: The Bills are a talented team and they have the players needed to make a run at the playoffs. Mularkey is an innovative offensive coach who will leave the defense to Gray and his assistants.
If Bledsoe can return to form and if Moulds can stay healthy the offense should be able to move the ball. Henry and McGahee form one of the most dynamic duos in the league and the Bills overall talent on offense should allow them to win at least 9 games.
Expect the defense to go after turnovers more, hoping to provide the offense with good field position so they can score early and often.
Playing in the AFC East is no cakewalk and while this team will be better in
2004 than they were in 2003 that probably won’t translate into a division
title. The Patriots are the best in the division with Buffalo, Miami, and New
York fighting for a wildcard. Look for Buffalo to pull off a 9-7 record and
to possibly sneak into the playoffs as a wildcard. This team has too much talent
not to be contending late in the season.
.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com.