Itís still August, but I canít blame Bills fans for feeling a bit uneasy. The organization poured big money into the product. Expectations have risen, along with the payroll. This is supposed to be the most talented roster in a decade, a team widely expected to compete for a playoff spot.
But with only 12 days left before the opener, thereís mild cause for concern. You bet the preseason matters.
Itís one thing to blow off the exhibition season when you have a roster filled with Pro Bowlers, as the Bills did in the Super Bowl years. After more than a decade of bumbling, you lose the benefit of the doubt. Skeptics learn to be wary.
This team has possibilities, but it has some of the same old shortcomings. Depth is an issue, as usual. Watching the Steelersí backups tear apart the Billsí subs was a chilling reminder. Theyíre thin at linebacker, wide receiver and offensive line. I almost forgot quarterback, where Buddy Nix continued his quest for a competent No. 2 by trading for Tarvaris Jackson on Monday.
Of course, just about every NFL team has depth issues. Itís a way of life in a salary cap league that worships parity. One thing you learn after watching the league for 40 years is that the contenders are carried by their elite players, the half dozen or so playmakers who separate the average team from the very good.
Thatís why I was actually encouraged by what I saw Saturday night against the Steelers ó at least when the Bills starters were still on the field. In the big picture, there were two major reasons to be optimistic about the teamís chances: defensive tackle Kyle Williams and tailback Fred Jackson.
Williams and Jackson are two of the Billsí biggest stars and playmakers. Both went on injured reserve last season. Williams, whose foot was injured from the start of the year, went on IR at midseason.
Jackson followed two weeks later with a broken leg. Without a healthy Williams, who had been a disruptive force in 2010, the pass rush was non-existent.
Teams had begun catching up to Ryan Fitzpatrick by midseason. They began sending extra rushers and challenging Fitz to beat them deep, gambling that he had neither the arm nor the personnel to make them pay. Pittsburgh used the same strategy Saturday; get prepared to see a lot of it this season.
But Jackson gave them a reliable two-way answer, a back who made big plays and was on pace to break O.J. Simpsonís team record for total yardage. When Jackson went down, they lost their competitive soul. It wasnít the only reason for the offensive collapse. Still, when a tailback and respected team man goes out of the lineup, it can take the life out of a team.
From what I saw Saturday, Jackson and Williams are getting healthy and back to their old selves. Jackson had a few of his signature runs, where he patiently sizes up his blocking and makes the precise cut needed to get the most out of a run. Itís a rare gift, the runnerís ability to calculate on the move. Itís a skill that C.J. Spiller doesnít yet possess.
Kyle Williams says heís not back to 100 percent. That should strike terror into the hearts of opposing offensive linemen on the schedule. On Saturday, Williams showed repeated flashes of his 2010 season, which some reputable football minds ó the nuts who review film of every NFL play ó felt was the best of any defensive lineman in the game.
It doesnít hurt having Mario Williams lined up alongside him. Actually, they rotated Kyle, lining him up next to Mario at left tackle on some plays and at right tackle on others, moving Marcell Dareus over. It didnít matter where they put them. Kyle Williams and Dareus got consistent penetration up the middle, allowing Mario Williams to make plays on the edge.
No wonder Kyle Williams was so eager to join Mario Williams for dinner when the Bills were courting him here last March. The $100 million man will make everyone on the line better. You canít double-team them all. Thatís a big problem for opposing offenses, because it seems folly to attack Dareus or the Williams boys with a single blocker.
Much of the postgame analysis centered on the Steelersí 98-yard drive just before halftime, which tarnished an otherwise great defensive half (really, should a team of veterans have gotten ďrattledĒ by a 33-yard pass in August?). All but forgotten was a play on which all four Buffalo defensive linemen pushed blockers back into their own end zone.
The Bills said they could have the best defensive line in football when they signed Mario Williams. They looked the part against the Steelers. OK, the linebacking is weak (gee, Shawne Merriman wasnít the savior, after all?). They still need to stop the run to put opponents into long down-and-distance situations. When that happens, theyíre going to cause havoc and create turnovers.
They have to stay reasonably healthy. In recent years, the Bills have been among the league leaders in players on IR. That reflects a lack of depth, which causes the top players to spend an inordinate amount of time on the field. As soon as the starting D line left the field Saturday, the drop-off in pressure was readily apparent.
You win with your stars. You also need to find ways to keep them fresh. Good health is one of the biggest factors on any NFL team. If Jackson and Kyle Williams remain healthy for the entire season, the Bills will contend for a playoff spot. Itís a bigger factor than, say, who plays backup quarterback.