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Bills 20, Panthers 9: Week 7 Film Session

I could get used to this.  I know I shouldn't, but I definitely know, one hundred percent, that I can get used to re-watching Buffalo Bills victories.  Buffalo's most recent victory, a 20-9 win over the Carolina Panthers, puts the Bills at 3-4 on the 2009 season - and while they aren't playing anywhere near playoff-caliber football, they're keeping themselves alive despite a pitiful start to the season.

There's a lot to cover in this particular installment of our weekly film session.  Let's go.

Ryan Fitzpatrick.  It is absolutely terrifying to say this, but get used to watching Fitzpatrick play, folks - there's a very strong chance you'll see him in the lineup for a while.  Why? It's pretty simple, really - Fitzpatrick currently gives Buffalo the best chance to win football games.  That's not saying a lot - for Trent Edwards or for Fitzpatrick.

Buffalo's offense looks different with Fitzpatrick at the helm - no one can deny that.  They're much less prone to mistakes.  The best examples there are turnovers (in eight quarters of play, the Bills have turned it over just once with Fitzpatrick at the helm), and far more importantly, sacks (Fitzpatrick has been sacked just twice in two games, whereas Edwards was sacked 19 times in a little over five games).  Forget about their skills as a quarterback.  If I know Dick Jauron, I'm looking at things like pocket presence, poise and decisiveness right now - because Fitzpatrick has displayed a crystal clear advantage in all three of those departments over the past two weeks, particularly in avoiding a solid Panthers pass rush and making a few really nice throws on Sunday.

Fitzpatrick is what he is.  Don't expect him to get better.  More efficient, possibly, but not better overall.  He's got a bit of swagger, he's solid in the pocket, and he's got a pretty strong arm.  He's not terribly accurate - he's only completing 44.7 percent of his passes this season, after all - and he doesn't put a lot of touch on his throws (Bills receivers dealt with a lot of high throws and balls glancing off their hands - Terrell Owens specifically - because Fitzpatrick decided to throw in howitzer mode).  It's a mark of how much Edwards has regressed in basic areas that we can truthfully say that Fitzpatrick is our best chance at making the playoffs.  It's obviously not ideal, but it is what it is.

The running game.  It's pretty easy to get on Fitzpatrick for his bad stats over the past two weeks, but it's also more than fair to say that he's been steering a completely one-dimensional offense.  Buffalo, which ran the ball very effectively early in the season - even while piling up defeats - hasn't been able to run the ball effectively at all in the past two weeks.  The Bills ran for 53 yards on 29 carries against Carolina, whose run defense was down near the bottom of the league entering the contest.  Fred Jackson has 54 yards on 20 carries in the past two weeks.  Marshawn Lynch? 101 yards on 36 carries.  Oh yeah - he also scored the Bills' first rushing TD on the season in this win.

Defenses aren't doing anything special to stop the run, either.  The Bills are seeing more stacked boxes than perhaps they did earlier in the season, but they see their fair share of seven-man fronts, too, thanks to Owens and Lee Evans on the outside.  The blocking isn't there, and the running backs haven't played up to their usual standards, either.  If Alex Van Pelt can find some rhythm for his running game, Buffalo's offense might finally start clicking - and Fitzpatrick might actually complete more than half of his pass attempts.

Offensive tackles.  It is plainly obvious that, aside from quarterback - yes, folks, Buffalo will be looking at quarterbacks next off-season, regardless of what happens this season - the Bills' biggest need offensively is a tackle.  Demetrius Bell is OK.  He played pretty well against the Panthers, and every week he looks a little more comfortable on the field.  There's a chance that he sticks around, particularly if he continues to improve.  Right tackle is another story altogether.  Jamon Meredith, making his second professional start, was repeatedly viciously abused by Julius Peppers.  Obviously, that wasn't unexpected, but half the time it looked like he was just letting Peppers pick him up off the ground to slow down his acceleration.  He's got some athleticism, but he's decades away from being worthy of dressing regularly for NFL games.  I never thought I'd be pining for the return of Jonathan Scott, but here I am, pining for the return of Jonathan Scott.

Terrell Owens.  Part of me just wants to see a guy like Fitzpatrick or Lee Evans rip into this guy.  Buffalo does what it can to get him involved early in games, and T.O. just lets the opportunities slip through his hands - literally.  Nothing would help the Bills more in games such as the ones they've played over the past two weeks than grabbing an early lead.  Owens has had chances to make plays early in ball games - whether to sustain drives or of bigger scale - and those opportunities have been blown.  Not only would it be fun to see the bemused expression on Owens' face if Fitzpatrick lit him up on the sidelines (yes, I'm aware it'll never happen), but it might actually provoke Owens to act like he gives a crap on the football field.

John McCargo.  I paid close attention to McCargo, who saw his first "extensive" playing time thanks to the knee injury that sidelined Kyle Williams early in this one.  My verdict: McCargo is useful, but he's absolutely nothing more than average.  He can stack and shed, he can penetrate, and he's tough against the run with a good motor, but he's just "a guy" - he'll never be a game-changer.  He's exactly where he belongs - fourth in the rotation.  Buffalo could use some additional beef in the middle of their D-Line rotation, and if that comes at the expense of McCargo next off-season, I'm OK with it.

Yet another linebacker shakeup.  Most of you probably noticed this during the game or heard about it afterward, but Perry Fewell made yet another change at linebacker.  Keith Ellison, who was the strong-side linebacker for the past two seasons, is now playing the weak-side role vacated by Kawika MitchellAshlee Palmer, who got the nod for Mitchell after his season-ending knee injury, is out of the lineup.  Chris Draft, a street free agent signing, is the new SAM linebacker.  It didn't really help - the Bills still gave up 4.6 yards per rush to a Panthers team that inexplicably allowed Jake Delhomme to air it out 44 times - but Draft at least attacked the line of scrimmage and had a big hand in a key fourth-and-one stop in the second half.  Did I mention the Bills need help at linebacker, too?

Jairus Byrd.  There isn't really much more to say than what we've said on each of the past two Mondays, but I thought I'd offer this up: Byrd doesn't look like he ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash in pre-draft workouts.  Many questioned his athleticism coming out of college based on this single time, but it's pretty clear that Byrd is a fantastic athlete.  He's really the ideal package at free safety - he's got terrific sideline-to-sideline range, he hits with solid leverage, and I don't think I need to tell you he's got great ball skills.  I'm not sure he'll ever be a top-notch run defender, but at free safety, he really doesn't need to be.  This guy is an absolute pleasure to watch - but wrap up that ball carrier, Jairus.  He had an ugly missed tackle on DeAngelo Williams' fourth-quarter touchdown run.

Special Teams.  Name a guy who plays special teams for the Bills, and I'll tell you that they had a great day on Sunday.  Well, I take that back - name a guy who plays special teams and isn't a returner, and I'll tell you that he had a great day.  Buffalo's return units continue to be pretty average, though Fred Jackson is still capable of making plays back there, with the scoot-up-the-sideline routine his go-to return.

The coverage units were back with full force on Sunday.  Maybe the Panthers just aren't great on special teams - OK, the Panthers aren't great on special teams - but we saw big hit after big hit from the Bills on Sunday.  John Wendling, Corey McIntyre, Ashlee Palmer, Jon Corto, Jonathan Stupar, Ashton Youboty - all of these and many others had big hits either on return men or on blockers.  Rarely have I seen Bills special teams units be as physically dominant as they were on Sunday.  Special teams will always be underrated by the masses, but the ability of Bobby April's units to physically manhandle the Panthers and flip field position was a huge factor in the Bills pulling out a win on the road.