Bills DE Kelsay embarking on career season

Buffalo Bills defensive end Chris Kelsay did not practice on Wednesday as his team prepares for a critical Week 8 tilt with the Houston Texans.  Kelsay's back locked up, according to BuffaloBills.com, and considering the soreness of the injury, it's very much up in the air if Kelsay will participate in this weekend's game.

For the first time in recent memory, Kelsay's potential absence might be considered a huge blow to the team by the Bills' fan base.  One of the most maligned Bills players in recent memory, Kelsay's head has been on the chopping block in the court of public opinion since the 2007 season.  After picking up 12.5 sacks from '04 to '06 - including a career-high 5.5 in '06 - the Bills rewarded Kelsay with a four-year, $23 million deal that included an $8 million signing bonus.  Kelsay did not live up to the deal in '07 or '08, however, picking up just 4.5 sacks in the 30 games he played two full years after signing his extension.

Yet Kelsay stuck with the Bills, despite fans and experts alike frequently predicting that he could be a surprise roster casualty or trade bait.  With new defensive line coach Bob Sanders on board, Kelsay admitted that he needed to be more productive, and some thought Sanders' presence would help.  To this point, the difference is night and day - Kelsay is on pace to set career highs in both tackles and sacks, as through seven games he's picked up 31 tackles (one behind Marcus Stroud's 32 amongst defensive linemen) and 3.0 sacks (second on the team behind Aaron Schobel's 4) for a resurgent Bills defensive line.

Back in late May, Kelsay was very honest about his future with the Bills, as he pointed out to The Buffalo News.  Schobel was set to return from a foot injury that prematurely ended his 2008 season.  The Bills had just spent the No. 11 overall pick on Aaron Maybin.  With a relatively high cap number ($3 million in '09, $3.7 million in '10), Kelsay's future with the team was anything but set in stone - and he knew it.  He was even the subject of pre-draft trade rumors.

"It'll play out however it plays out," Kelsay said after another day of organized team activities. "Just give it your all and do everything to the best of your ability. That's all you can control anyway."

As mentioned, Kelsay was up front about his lack of production in the sack department, as well.

"I think it's the expectation that people put on the game and our position," Kelsay said of his critics. "Do I think they're wrong? No, because I could be thinking the same thing if I were in their shoes. I would be expecting a guy who is drafted fairly high or a guy who gets a big, lucrative contract to be productive in the sacks area, so I really can't criticize them for criticizing me...

"I know that I'm not satisfied personally with my sack numbers," said Kelsay, who has just 17 career sacks. "Just because I've said in the past that I'm not a sack guy doesn't mean I'm not working to become one. I definitely believe I can increase my production there, and I need to increase production there."

He's done it.  Though his three sacks in seven games this season can hardly be considered elite numbers (he's currently tied with 20 other players in the league for No. 30 in the league in sacks, and seven behind league leader Elvis Dumervil), he's already eclipsed his admittedly pathetic totals from the 2007 and 2008 seasons (2.5 and 2.0, respectively).

It's not just about numbers, though - Kelsay has been a legitimate catalyst for a Bills defense that has picked up eight interceptions in their last two games.  As just one of many examples, Kelsay had an excellent pass rush against Panthers rising star OT Jeff Otah in the middle of the second quarter last weekend.  Kelsay used his hands to beat Otah to the corner, and as he bent the edge and began pursuit of Jake Delhomme from behind, he caused Delhomme to throw deep down the middle of the field too early.  The throw was long, and rookie free safety Jairus Byrd picked it off.

Sanders has helped.  Sanders replaced Bill Kollar, who ironically has coached Mario Williams to 3 sacks and the Texans as a team to just 9 sacks through 7 games (the Bills have 16 in the same time frame).  The Bills' new D-Line coach has focused on developing counter moves for each of his players, and as a result, the Bills are quickly approaching the 24-sack total they accrued as a team in 2008.

Being part of a healthier rotation has helped, too.  Last season, the Bills played two defensive ends on the vast majority of defensive snaps (Kelsay and Ryan Denney), as Schobel was out and players such as Copeland Bryan and Chris Ellis were not considered reliable depth.  That two-end platoon wore down quickly.  Now, Kelsay is part of a four-man rotation in which all players - yes, even the rookie Maybin - see significant playing time.  The ends appear much fresher late in games as a result.

Don't give all of the credit for Kelsay's improvement to Sanders and the general health of the defensive ends, however.  Kelsay simply looks like a better player, and he deserves the lion's share of the credit for that fact.  He's making more plays, and his numbers are looking very solid.  He is now a positive factor for this Bills defense - something no Bills fan would have thought possible given his last two seasons.  Kelsay's a great guy, and while criticisms against him were fair, it's also only fair to recognize the fact that he's playing better than ever this season.  Props, Chris.  Get your back healthy - we need you this weekend.

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