The disaster that became the Buffalo Bills' 2011 season was seen to be largely blamed on the poor performance of the injured offensive line.
The big boys of the offense started out tremendously and their work during the 5-2 start was enough to carry them to the fewest sacks in the NFL, as well as ranking them fifth in rushing yards per carry.
However, a lack of depth and a perceived need for more help at left tackle led Buffalo to focus a good portion of their attention on strengthening their O-line for 2012 and it was thought that strides had been made.
Until training camp.
In the first week and a half at St John Fischer College, the Bills have been shining on defense, but have looked a little underwhelming on the opposite side of the ball. Basically, the rebuilt defensive line has been rampaging right through the offensive line, often hurrying and spoiling any chance the offense has had to get in a groove.
During 11-on-11 drills this past weekend, the Bills went live, running eight full contact plays down near the red zone and saw the defense win that battle the majority of the time (5-3 in favor of the defensive unit). Even the second-string defensive line has had success facing the starting offensive line, both against the pass and the run, leading many to question what’s wrong.
Well, first there’s the slow progression of second round pick Cordy Glenn, who has looked a little lost at times practicing at left tackle with the first team. This past weekend, he was taken to school by new defensive end Mark Anderson as well as veteran tackle Kyle Williams, who both succeeded in either getting around Glenn to disrupt plays, or in just strong arming the rookie tackle back into Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Coach Chan Gailey, though, has been adamant about leaving Glenn in at left tackle, seeing that “Cordy needs every snap at left tackle that he can get” if he’s to be ready to start by the regular season.
To make matters worse, Chris Hairston may not be available to take over the left tackle job should Glenn continue to move forward so slowly. It seems that tackle Erik Pears, who had been the only Bills' offensive lineman to start every game at the same spot last season and just signed a three-year extension, may be healing more slower than expected from his offseason hernia operation.
As a result, Hairston, along with Sam Young (who wasn’t even projected to make the team at the start of camp) and fifth-round pick Zebrie Sanders from Florida State, have been running a three-man rotation at the right tackle spot, which is giving Glenn the chance to (hopefully) get more assured at left tackle, but may cause problems if Pears isn’t ready to go soon.
Regardless, the results haven’t been all too spectacular at either tackle spot (Mario Williams is tearing up the right side) and though coach Gailey hasn’t been ready to label it a “major concern”, it still is a little worrisome.
Then there’s oft-injured and still recovering center Eric Wood, who is entering his third season with Buffalo this year, but has yet to stay healthy a full 16 games, playing just 33 of a possible 48 games in his career. When he’s in, Wood is a great field general at the line and has developed a great simpatico with quarterback Fitzpatrick, but his rehab from a torn ACL suffered Week 10 last season has been slow and safe to say the least.
Granted, guard Kraig Urbik has look solid in camp playing center, continuing the standout work he put in to end the 2011 season at the position, but it would be better to see Wood in front of Fitzpatrick and Urbik back in the guard spot he excels at the most. As of now, Wood isn’t slated for the first preseason game against Washington and though he claims to be “closer to 100 percent”, he has still been severely limited in practice.
So, while the defense has been progressing well beyond the 2011 version, living up to much of the hype and price tag, the Buffalo offense has been stymied in their growth, with the first-stringers too often looking like the second-team.
With a porous and overwhelmed offensive line too often allowing defensive bodies into the backfield, Fitzpatrick is regressing to throwing off his back foot again (or scrambling for his life) and the running game just isn’t getting a chance to truly explore what they can do with a healthy C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
Again, the problem seems to be no depth in talent should injuries continue to add up, which was what Buffalo set out to fix in the offseason.
Unless the offensive line can start figuring things out and start to play as a unit, all that work to bring back names like Steve Johnson, Fitzpatrick, and Jackson could be for nothing, because without the time to run plays, there’s little hope of successfully executing Gailey’s offensive playbook.