When the Vikings open their home schedule Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, they will be facing a team with many of the same expectations for the future and bad memories of the recent past.
The Bills, like the Vikings, dropped to the bottom tier of the NFL with a 4-12 record last year. But, like the Vikings, Buffalo hopes that a young nucleus of talent and important new faces will make the difference between being a repeat high draft pick next year and a team competing for the playoffs.
Buffalo is pinning much of its hopes on quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Acquired in a trade with New England on the second day of the draft, Bledsoe gives Buffalo its best QB option since Jim Kelly and puts to rest the quarterback controversies of the last couple of seasons. While Alex Van Pelt remains as the backup, Bledsoe's leadership and experience will be critical to the improvement of the Buffalo offense and reasons for high hopes. With the thousands of fans that showed up for his first press conference, it's obvious that the stakes are high for Bledsoe to succeed.
The running game remains a multi-headed beast for the Bills, but it looks as though they have finally decided on one featured back. Travis Henry came in with a lot of hype last year but saw his time cut. Sammy Morris and Shawn Bryson both saw playing time as the featured back and will continue to be part of the offense; however, it is Henry who will have the chance to be the go-to running back this year. One key player who has always been a Vikings killer is Larry Centers. From his days with the Cardinals, Centers was a consistent double-digit receiving threat and will have to be a big part of the Vikings game plan.
The receivers give Bledsoe many options that likely will be used to attack the questionable Vikings secondary. Eric Moulds has never quite reached the annual Pro Bowl level many have aspired him to achieve, but he is a speedy receiver with good hands who could jump to the next level once he and Bledsoe get on the same page. In Peerless Price the Bills have another talented young receiver that is ready for a breakout year. Throw in rookie Josh Reed — a player the Vikings coveted — and you have a trio of wide receivers with the speed to get deep and create big plays while stretching out a defense.
The tight end position consists of a couple of journeymen who have always been solid in the red zone. Jay Riemersma has been the starter for several years but is being pushed by newcomer Dave Moore — late of the Bucs — who can help give Bledsoe a couple of safety-valve passing options.
Perhaps the biggest change for the Bills will be up front. The team used its first-round pick to take offensive tackle Mike Williams, who is signed and is expected to be a cornerstone at right tackle for years to come. The Bills are starting a youth movement, with second-year tackle Jonas Jennings and second-year guard Marques Sullivan joining veterans Ruben Brown and Trey Teague to give the Bills a bigger, more powerful front five. The Bills have several players who can play multiple positions, so if any of the interior linemen go down the team won't miss a beat. The tackles, however, will be vital to any success the Bills try to maintain this year.
While the offense has many reasons to be optimistic, the defense remains a huge question mark. Only three of Buffalo's 16 opponents scored less than 20 points in a game last year, and seven of them scored 30 or more. The problems begin up front, and those haven't changed. The Bills shuffled the deck defensively, bringing in Chidi Ahanotu to play end and putting second-year man Aaron Schobel into a full-time starting position at right end. Pat Williams and Ron Edwards are inside. Injuries have sidelined Leif Larsen and rookie Ryan Denney, so a team that created little in the way of QB pressure last year will be asked to do it this year with a depleted corps to start the season.
At linebacker, losing Sam Cowart was a major blow, but the Bills sought some Super Bowl karma by bringing in London Fletcher to patrol the middle. Flanked by fourth-year man Keith Newman and 11-year vet Eddie Robinson, the Bills have an experienced corps of starting linebackers that will be asked to blitz, as well as provide help in stopping the run and protecting the quarterback. With no backups with any starting experience, it will be paramount that the front-line guys live up to their billing.
If the porous Bills defense has a strength, it would be at the corners, where Antoine Winfield and Nate Clements — a pair of pressure corners from Ohio State — are going to be asked to play bump-and-run with Randy Moss, D'Wayne Bates and/or Derrick Alexander. Both have excellent athletic ability but have been burned by double-out routes and pump fakes — as offenses use their aggression against them. At the safeties, neither rookie Coy Wire nor untested Pierson Prioleau were expected to start when training camp opened, but both are there now. Youngsters Chris Watson and Jason Bostic provide backup help at the corners, while projected starter Billy Jenkins is relegated to backup assignments at safety.
Vikings fans hope the Bills will be the first of many victims of the Vikings' potent passing offense. Unlike the Bears, who came into the regular-season opener boasting one of the NFC's better defenses, the Bills remain a huge question mark on the defensive side of the ball and a team the Vikings may be able to overpower — like the first unit did last month in the preseason.
Vikes WRs vs. Nate Clements and Antoine Winfield — The Bills boast a pair of cocky, aggressive corners in Clements and Winfield, and the scouting report is that both are willing to take chances. That can create big plays but also cause opponents to produce monstrous plays on the flip side.
Winfield is blessed with athleticism, but he has one major drawback — he is only 5-foot-9 and no match for a player like Randy Moss. Look for the Vikings to throw high in the direction of Winfield because, despite good leaping ability, he will be giving up several inches in height and arm extension to the Vikings receivers.
By the same token, while Clements is taller at 5-11, he has one serious down side — he is only in his second year. While expectations weren't overly high for Clements last year, he exceeded everything the team expected of him. As a target of a lot of passes early, he got better by having offensive coordinators pick on him. But, with the exception of Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis, he wasn't exposed to the type of big speed receivers the Vikings can trot out on a regular basis.
In their preseason matchup, the Vikings abused the Bills in the secondary — throwing and completing passes of 20 yards or more almost at will. While the Vikes are adamant about trying to establish more of a running game, what they picked up in the preseason game was that the Bills can be beaten regularly with well-timed deep passes. The Vikings assaulted Buffalo in the deep passing game a month ago, and it will be up to Clements and Winfield to prevent them from doing it again — what will surely become the matchup to watch Sunday.
Deep Ball Rebound?
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