Banged-up Bills beginning to limp after fast start
The Buffalo Bills and their fans can't say they weren't warned about potential trouble ahead.
It was at the height of their surprising start, when general manager Buddy Nix was expressing concerns about the Bills' lack of experienced depth at several positions. Those fears are now being realized on a team that's lost much of its momentum while suddenly attempting to plug untested rookies into key starting spots to replace injured veterans.
''It's showing up,'' Nix said Wednesday.
The Bills (5-4) have lost three of four and are in jeopardy of slipping further out of the AFC playoff race in preparing to play at Miami (2-7) on Sunday.
And if the Bills no longer resemble the dynamic team with the prolific offense and opportunistic defense that rolled to a 4-1 start, it's in part because their roster has been decimated by a rash of injuries.
Center Eric Wood (right knee) became the third regular to go on the season-ending injured reserve list in as many weeks on Tuesday. That leaves the Bills preparing for Miami with a starting lineup featuring as many as 10 players who had five or fewer starts before this season.
That includes rookie Chris Hairston expected to start at left tackle for Demetrius Bell, who's missed five games with a shoulder injury. Second-year defensive lineman Alex Carrington is now starting at left end in place of rookie first-round pick Marcell Dareus, who has shifted to nose tackle to replace Kyle Williams (season-ending left foot injury).
And then there's linebacker Danny Batten, who missed his entire rookie season last year, but has started in place of both Shawne Merriman (season-ending Achilles tendon surgery) and Chris Kelsay (left calf).
''We think we have some good players. The problem is we don't have experienced depth,'' coach Chan Gailey said. ''They're all young players, and they're having to learn on the fly. That's not an easy thing to do.''
And that's something the Bills could not afford given that Nix and Gailey are only into Year 2 of an extensive building process that relies more on improving the team through the draft and not free agency.
Bills players are refusing to use injuries as a crutch.
''Some people might be more affected by it, but to us that's not an excuse,'' quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. ''You have to take advantage of your opportunities. And that's kind of the theme for this team. We are the no-names.''
No-production has been more like it of late.
Buffalo's scores 18 points total in its past two games after scoring 20 or more in each of its first seven.
Fitzpatrick's numbers have dropped. He had 1,040 yards passing with nine touchdowns and four interceptions in his first four games. In his past five, Fitzpatrick has 1,036 yards passing with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Buffalo's receivers had little experience to begin with at the start of the season. And the group's been thinned further with Roscoe Parrish (ankle) on injured reserve and no one stepping in to provide a reliable deep threat.
''We're cool,'' receiver Stevie Johnson said. ''We can handle this. Every team goes through something like this. We lost two games, but we're still a good team.''
Johnson leads Buffalo with 44 catches and 531 yards, but he was hampered by a groin injury earlier this season. And his status to play this weekend is uncertain after he hurt his left shoulder against Dallas.
The troubles are apparent on a defense that remains leaky and incapable of establishing a pass rush.
Buffalo has 15 sacks, but 10 of those came in a 23-0 win over Washington three weeks ago.
What's worse, the Bills are also no longer forcing takeaways. After leading the league with 16 takeaways (12 interceptions and four fumble recoveries) through Week 5 of the season, Buffalo's managed just four (three interceptions and a fumble) in its past four games.
''It might be a little bit of a lack of experience because we have a lot of veterans that have been hurt,'' linebacker Nick Barnett acknowledged. ''We're going to go through some struggles of getting guys ready. But it's all in the energy. If you're going to have mistakes, just go out there and play 110 percent and I think we'll be fine.''
Barnett understands that the Bills need to turn things around quickly.
''We're still in the hunt of it,'' Barnett said. ''It's definitely now or never.''