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Football might not always be won in the trenches these days, thanks to the proliferation of pass-happy quarterbacks in the NFL.

But it sure can be lost ?in the trenches.

Few teams know this like the Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo's run defense has ranked in the bottom five in the NFL three straight years and has been among the bottom 11 seven straight years. It's hard for your defense to get off the field when the opponent can simply run it down your throat.

Before last year, the Bills ranked outside the top 12 in sacks allowed 11 straight seasons. A quarterback can't complete passes when he's flat on his back.

Leaky lines of scrimmage have been a hallmark ?of the Bills' 12-year playoff drought.

This season, the Bills believe they finally have a defensive line that will be the best in the AFC East. The Bills believe they ?have developed an offensive line that will be at least the equal to the others in the division.

"It's still a game of blocking and tackling," said defensive coordinator ?Dave Wannstedt. "People would like to think it's not, but it is."

If the Bills' offensive and defensive lines can live up to expectations, the team should ?enjoy its first winning season since 2004.

Here's a breakdown on the keys to the 2012 Bills campaign:

>Top four strengths

1. The front four. The Bills need Mario Williams' run defense as much as his pass rushing. Williams is an elite run defender, and now he's on the strong side of the formation. The Bills' defense will face a lot fewer second-and-4 situations. Marcell Dareus had a good rookie year. With a little more consistency he could be a Pro Bowler. Kyle Williams, perhaps the best athlete on the team, is a master at hand-fighting. He looks ready to terrorize backfields. Mark Anderson has more pass-rush talent around him than last season, when he had 12.5 sacks in 19 games for New England while playing 47 percent of the snaps. Only four of Anderson's 12.5 sacks came with the Pats up by 9 or more. We'll see how much Anderson plays on first and 10, since Chris Kelsay is the better run defender. How critical is improved run defense? Last season, the Bills put opposing offenses in third and 10 or more a league-low 43 times. The league average was 62 times. The Bills should be pass rushing from a position of strength much more often.

2. The running backs. Fred Jackson was No. 2 in the NFL in yards from scrimmage through 10 games last season with an average of 137.6 yards a game. He averaged a league-high 5.49 yards per carry and a league-best 3.8 yards per carry after contact. He makes everybody around him look better. C.J. Spiller averaged 90.5 yards over the last six games, after Jackson got hurt. It will be interesting to see how the Bills use both Jackson and Spiller together. They are a 1-2 punch that will give any defense matchup nightmares.

3. Ryan Fitzpatrick: Strength, you ask? Yes. It's his third year with Chan Gailey, and by now the two can finish each other's sentences. Fitzpatrick has the perfect blend of intellect and guts to run the spread offense, which requires great pre-snap reads and a quick trigger. New QB coach David Lee is a key addition, helping clean up some footwork problems Fitz displayed. The expectation is Fitzpatrick will be more accurate throwing deep. People who say Fitz had just half a good season are missing the bigger picture. Over a 20-game stretch from 2010 through the seventh game last year, he averaged 237 passing yards a game with 37 TDs and 22 interceptions and a passer rating of 87.3. That's playoff caliber, over a significant period, ?without a true playoff cast. Now the cast is in place (we think). If Fitz is not one of the Bills' top four strengths, they're not going to the playoffs.

4. Special teams: Look for a strong year from punter Brian Moorman, who has added the Aussie kick to his arsenal. His kicks inside the 20 should take a sharp uptick. Rian Lindell, back from injury, is accurate. Leodis McKelvin is a good punt returner. On kickoffs, the Bills have a specialist (John Potter) and the top coverage unit in the league.

>Top four concerns

1. Linebacker quality: The Bills may be OK here. We don't know for sure. Given the strength of the front four, the linebackers should run around and make plays. Get their hands on balls. Tip passes. Force some fumbles. Nick Barnett is the best of the bunch. He led the team in tackles, had three interceptions, three sacks and played 93 percent of the snaps.

The expectation is middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, after learning on the job in nine starts last season, is ready to become an asset. Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt was repeatedly heard saying, "Great read, Shep," during training camp. Let's see Sheppard make some plays. On the strong side is Arthur Moats, whose hard work has allowed him to convert from rush end to 'backer. He's a relative unknown at the position. Rookie Nigel Bradham may work his way into some snaps.

2. O-Line youth and health: The offensive line might be one of the top four strengths. But there are worries. Left tackle Cordy Glenn had a good preseason overall. Yet one has to expect a rookie to have some ups and downs. The Bills need to give Fitzpatrick a bit more time than he had last year to go deep. All indications are Eric Wood is ready to play well after knee rehabilitation. It may take him half a season to be back to his elite level. Right tackle Erik Pears has played almost none this summer. It may take him half a season to get to top form. The Bills need Chris Hairston to pick up some slack.

3. Z Receiver: Can the Bills stretch the field and keep defenses honest? The Bills have enough weapons that they do not need the outside receiver(s) opposite Stevie Johnson to be great. They need them to be respected. Starter Donald Jones gets the chance to prove he's more than just a decent player. Third-round receivers don't usually do a lot as rookies. If the Bills could get 25 catches and a 15-yard average from T.J. Graham it would help the offense a lot.

4. Young cornerbacks: First-round pick Stephon Gilmore looks ready to step right in and be an asset. Keep in mind, however, that even Nate Odomes and Nate Clements, two of the better Bills rookies who started from Day One, got torched some their first seasons. Meanwhile, Aaron Williams also will be a first-year starter on the other side in nickel situations and in regular situations, too, if Terrence McGee misses time. Williams has all the physical tools but got picked on some in training camp. The good news is the Bills have good depth with Leodis McKelvin and Justin Rogers.

>Outlook

General Manager Buddy Nix and his staff have gradually been improving the Bills' talent level. He has the trust of owner Ralph Wilson, as evidenced by the team's big spending this offseason. While the Bills still are relying on young players at some key spots, the favorable schedule gives them a great chance to snap their playoff drought. Look for a 10-6 finish and a wild-card berth.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com