PITTSFORD – The beef was back in the Buffalo Bills’ defensive line Friday night.
The team has six weeks to get it into Grade A condition.
Marcell Dareus and Alan Branch, who combine for about 670 pounds of defensive might, practiced with the team for the first time at St. John Fisher College.
Dareus, the team’s troubled, 24-year-old star, made his presence felt with a strong evening.
“He’s a big part of our puzzle, and it’s good to have him back and getting in the swing of things,” said fellow defensive tackle Kyle Williams.
“You can look to your left and your right and see guys that can win one-on-ones, make plays and can change the way an offense approaches things.”
Williams was referring to playing between Dareus and defensive end Mario Williams.
Dareus played 21 snaps in 11-on-11 portions of the practice before a full house of more than 4,000 people at St. John Fisher College. On his second play, he stuffed a hole that C.J. Spiller tried to run into for what would have been no gain. On his third play he helped the interior defense stuff another run. On his fourth play he penetrated into the pocket and forced quarterback EJ Manuel to scramble. Manuel made about 10 yards on the play.
On Dareus’ second series, he cast tackle Erik Pears aside and wrapped up Manuel for a sack.
Dareus declined to answer questions after the practice. He looked like a guy happy to be on the field.
Both Dareus and Branch were making their debuts after passing physical conditioning tests on Thursday.
“I’m happy to have him back,” coach Doug Marrone said.
Marrone, however, has been answering a lot of questions about Dareus the past week and wasn’t making any bold proclamations about Dareus’ performance as training camp continues.
“I take it day by day,” the coach said. “Every day we get here, just like with a lot of the players, take it day by day and just try to focus on football.”
Dareus’ offseason included a drug-related arrest in Alabama in May and a car crash in Hamburg in May, in addition to his failure to initially pass the team’s physical conditioning test upon reporting to camp.
Branch’s return drew less attention, but he projects as a key member of the defense.
Branch, 29, is the No. 1 backup to both Dareus and Kyle Williams. Branch played 52 percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps last season, and the team probably could use him that much again this year.
Like Dareus, Branch is in the 335-pound range.
The Bills need his girth and ability on the interior of the defense. He was drafted 33rd overall upon entering the NFL in 2007.
The Bills ranked 10th in yards allowed last season but are aiming to improve on a ranking of 28th against the run.
“I’m ready to go,” Branch said. “I feel like I’m in good enough shape to go out there and practice.
“At the end of the day, you can’t get in football shape without playing football. So I passed the test and I’m going to get in better shape by getting my hand in the dirt.”
The Bills thought enough of Branch to sign him to a contract extension last December that was worth $9.55 million over three years.
“I felt I ended pretty well last year,” Branch said. “I’m just glad the team thought I did pretty well as well by re-signing me for a couple more years. Do I think there’s more I could have done? Yeah. I think I probably fell into more of a groove towards the middle of the season, getting more stats-wise. I did my job beating up on the offensive linemen early, but I wasn’t getting very many tackles.”
The Bills want their defensive tackles attacking into the backfield. Marrone said given the nature of defensive line play, he doesn’t think Dareus or Branch should have much trouble adjusting to the scheme of coordinator Jim Schwartz.
“It’s pretty easy when you’re a defensive lineman,” Marrone said. “I always said I wanted to be like a defensive line coach. … So I think we’re OK there.”