Finally, Bills looking super on defense, too Free agents complement offense, put 7-3 Buffalo back into title contention

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For all those years and all those tantalizing Super Bowl teams, the Buffalo Bills were fatally flawed. They had the heart of a champion and a defense like a sieve.

They couldn't stop Ottis Anderson in Super Bowl XXV, Mark Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI, or anybody on the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII.

For all those years, the Bills tried to do it with offense. Quarterback Jim Kelly cracked the whip that powered the Bills' no-huddle attack, and the defense went along for the ride.

Yet, as they contemplate yet another run this season in their decade-long quest for a Super Bowl championship, the Bills are going to have to do it with defense.

And, for once, the defense looks like it can handle the load.

"I know this is the best defense I've had an opportunity to play with since I've been here," said center Kent Hull, an 11-year veteran whose career predates the Bills' rise to power.

But is the team that beat the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles on successive Sundays this month a rebuilt Super Bowl contender, or simply the result of an old November reflex?

Are these Bills real, or is this surge to 7-3 in the AFC East (and a first-place tie with the New England Patriots) just a product of the new, watered-down NFL?

And if this is the last stand for longtime heroes like Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, wide receiver Andre Reed and defensive end Bruce Smith, do they finally have the ammunition to overtake the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC?

They certainly have the schedule. The Bills get the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets at home the next two weeks. Then, after trips to Indianapolis, Seattle and Miami, they finish with Kansas City at home. It may be too late to wrestle home-field advantage from the 9-1 Broncos, but that finish holds momentum-building possibilities.

The Bills already have weathered a crisis of confidence this season. Five weeks ago, after Kelly played poorly in a 21-7 loss to the Miami Dolphins, he openly speculated about his future as the Bills' quarterback.

Since then, he campaigned for -- and won -- a return of the team's K-Gun offense, a no-huddle, fast-paced attack in which Kelly calls his own plays.

Once the Bills went back to the no-huddle, Kelly responded with two of his best games this season. He completed 19 of 23 passes for 203 yards in a 38-13 demolition of the Redskins on Nov. 3. Last Sunday, alternating between the K-Gun and a two-tight end set, he directed long touchdown drives of 16 and 15 plays to beat the Eagles, 24-17.

"I guess [coach] Marv Levy was right," Thomas said later. "We have to mix it up."

Said Levy: "I know the question will come up whether we operate better with a no-huddle. I know Jim Kelly certainly does."

Hull, who talked Kelly out of the doldrums after the Miami game, said the issue of no-huddle or huddle comes down to Kelly calling his own plays.

"He has a feel for why he wants to call certain things," Hull said. "He knows what's happening. And he's more confident when he calls the plays."

Against the Eagles, Kelly called a draw play to Thomas that wasn't in the game plan. He guessed correctly that the linebackers would be stunting a certain way, and Thomas romped 23 yards to a big first down.

"The guy's a competitor," defensive end Jim Jeffcoat said of Kelly. "He's a battler. That is his spirit. It goes through the whole team."

Asked about the Bills' morale, Levy, a 71-year-old philosopher and war buff, resorted to an adage.

"I'll quote General Eisenhower," he said. " 'Morale comes from victory in battle more than from food or clean socks or anything else.' There's a long way to go. There are three other teams in our division still very much in the fray. To say this is a trend, I don't know."

It is the Bills' defense, nevertheless, that has underwritten Buffalo's latest playoff drive. Under second-year defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Bills have allowed opponents 9.7 fewer rushing yards and 16.9 fewer passing yards a game this season. While their sacks and interceptions are off last year's pace, the Bills have given up 3.4 fewer points, as well.

This defense is a distinct improvement on Buffalo's Super Bowl entries.

"We might have had more talent in one or two areas [on those teams]," said Smith, the team's perennial Pro Bowl pass rusher. "But when you look at the overall personnel we have at each position now, it's got to be the best we have had here."

The Bills scored a defensive coup in the free-agent market before the 1995 season. They got Jeffcoat from Dallas, nose tackle Ted Washington from Denver and linebacker Bryce Paup from Green Bay. Paup made the biggest splash last year with an NFL-high 17 1/2 sacks.

"It wasn't a tough sell," general manager John Butler said. "It was a chance to play for a great coach and a great staff.

"We have the finest owner in the business. Ralph Wilson provides me with all the resources I need to get these people. They all had the common thread of wanting to win a championship."

At 6 feet 4 and 325 pounds, Washington gave the Bills a legitimate run stopper in the middle, a commodity lacking in the Super Bowl years.

"Ted played for Wade Phillips before in Denver," Butler said. "He was the perfect guy in our scheme."

This year, the Bills struck again for the defense and lured linebacker Chris Spielman from Detroit. Spielman more than made up for the loss of Cornelius Bennett: He leads the team with 116 tackles and has elevated the intensity level of the whole unit.

The Bills also got some help this year from the draft. Eight of Buffalo's 10 draft picks are on the 53-man roster and a ninth is on the practice squad. While first-round pick and wide receiver Eric Moulds earns his way on offense, a third-round pick from tiny Appalachian State has come up big on defense. Rookie Matt Stevens filled the void when veteran strong safety Henry Jones broke his leg a month ago.

According to Butler, Stevens was a consensus first-round pick until he severely tore up his knee late last season at Appalachian. He made a touchdown-saving play in the end zone in the Bills' decisive goal-line stand in Philadelphia, and was the game's biggest hitter.

He is part of the new wave in Buffalo. He is one of 30 players on the roster in their third year or less in the NFL.

"There is a perception out there this is an old team because we have the same names at some positions," Butler said. "We're really trying to bring youth into the fold. But it's got to be championship-caliber players we bring in."

Stuffing the run

The Bills' defense is tougher to run against this season. A year ago, opposing backs rushed for 70 or more yards seven times against Buffalo. This season, only two have gone for more than 70, and none in the past seven games. The breakdown in 1996:

Player ................. Att. .. Yds. .. Avg. .. TD .. Result

Rodney Hampton, Giants .. 18 .... 50 ... 2.8 .... 0 .. W, 23-20 (OT)

Curtis Martin, Patriots.. 28 .... 90 ... 3.2 .... 0 .. W, 17-10

Jerome Bettis, Steelers.. 20 ... 133 ... 6.7 .... 2 .. L, 24-6

Emmitt Smith, Cowboys ... 15 .... 25 ... 1.7 .... 1 .. W, 10-7

Marshall Faulk, Colts ... 20 .... 55 ... 2.8 .... 1 .. W, 16-13 (OT)

K. Abdul-Jabbar, Dolphins 25 .... 37 ... 1.5 .... 1 .. L, 21-7

Adrian Murrell, Jets .... 13 .... 49 ... 3.8 .... 0 .. W, 25-22

Curtis Martin, Patriots.. 21 .... 54 ... 2.6 .... 1 .. L, 28-25

Terry Allen, Redskins ... 15 .... 49 ... 3.3 .... 2 .. W, 38-13

Ricky Watters, Eagles ... 19 .... 51 ... 2.7 .... 0 .. W, 24-17

Totals ................. 194 ... 593 ... 3.1 .... 8

Doing it with D

B6 The difference a year makes in the Bills' defense:

Category ....... 1995 ... 1996

3rd down pct. .. 34.4 ... 38.6

Total yards ... 320.5 .. 293.9

Rush yards .... 101.6 ... 91.9

Pass yards .... 218.9 .. 202.0

Sacks ............ 49 ..... 27

Interceptions .... 17 ...... 6

Points ......... 20.9 ... 17.5

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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