Bills DBs tired of being on receiving end


ATLANTA -- Five minutes into the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXVII, Alvin Harper opened the floodgates on the Buffalo Bills.

First, the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver scored on a 45-yard pass play. Then, in a symbolic gesture, he slam-dunked the football through the Rose Bowl goal posts.

It was symbolic because Harper's catch ignited a three-touchdown flurry. When it ended, the Cowboys had slammed and dunked the Bills, 52-17.

"I was frustrated because they hadn't thrown me any passes," Harper said in reflection this week. "I told myself if I catch one, I'm going to give the people something to remember for a long time."

It wasn't something the Bills can easily forget. This Sunday, when the two teams meet again in Super Bowl XXVIII, one of the

most difficult challenges facing the Bills is the task of trying to stop that Dallas fast-break offense.

The Cowboys like to pound inside with MVP Emmitt Smith, then throw deep to the dangerous tandem of Michael Irvin and Harper.

"We know they're tremendous athletes who can run with the ball after they catch it," said Bills strong safety Henry Jones. "We have to think of that.

"But we're not just going to play scared about getting beat deep. We're going to take away some of the shorter [routes], too. We're going to be on top of them, put some pressure on them. We're not going to sit back this time."

A year ago, the Bills' secondary was torched when it resorted to desperation measures. Irvin came away with six catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns, and quarterback Troy Aikman (273 yards, 4 TDs) walked away with the MVP award.

This year, the Bills might have to defend Dallas' passing game with -- gasp! -- a pair of gimpy cornerbacks and a rookie.

Starting left cornerback Mickey Washington has a pulled rib muscle suffered in Sunday's AFC championship game, but is listedas probable for Sunday. Backup corner James Williams has a pulled calf muscle and is questionable.

That leaves the Bills with just two healthy corners -- mainstay Nate Odomes, the NFL's co-leader in interceptions with nine this season, and rookie Thomas Smith.

"They've got a good quality receiving corps," Odomes said of Dallas.

And although Odomes, 5 feet 10, will give away four inches in his matchup with 6-2 Irvin, he says, "There ain't no size problem."

Smith, 23, watched last year's Super Bowl from Chapel Hill, N.C., where he rooted for the Cowboys.

"I was a Cowboys fan growing up," Smith said, "so I was going against the Bills."

Three months later, he was a first-round draft choice of the Bills out of North Carolina. For most of the season, he played on special teams and in the dime package.

If Washington is unable to play Sunday, the starting job would fall to Smith.

"It's something I'd be able to adjust to and handle," he said. "I've been looking at film, studying Irvin and Harper. I want to see what techniques they use, look at the different routes they run, see how they push off on DBs. I know Irvin pushes off a lot more than Harper does."

Would Smith be daunted or daring if he were to start on Sunday?

"I'd be very excited," he said.

"Starting and playing in the Super Bowl. . . . Like who wouldn't want to play in the Big Show? That'd be like heaven."

In contrast to the Super Bowl, Buffalo's secondary held up in a Week 2 visit to Texas. The Bills beat the Cowboys, 13-10, but Dallas played without Emmitt Smith, who was holding out.

It was a boost to the Bills' confidence.

"I don't think anyone wants to admit it, but I think there was a revenge factor there," Jones said. "Everyone really wanted to beat them badly. With Emmitt or without, we can't control that. Some guys felt we had to win that game to get some kind of respect."

Dallas remembers more than the score.

"Those guys were in the locker room [afterward] hollering, 'How 'bout those Cowboys,' " said Irvin, who had eight receptions for 114 yards. "So it'll be interesting.

"For a team to come in and hold us to 10 or 14 points, that's a good job. That shouldn't happen."

Said Harper: "We've got Emmitt back, so it'll be a different story."

It is the classic matchup of a Buffalo defense that has feasted on turnovers all season (23 interceptions) against a Dallas offense that protects the ball (six interceptions).

"We're going to have to do some things to create turnovers," Jones said. "They're not going to give it away."

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