Last season, I ran a series in which I provided my opinion about the keys to a Buffalo Bills victory each week. I'm sure I was correct with some of those ideas a few times, but mostly it was just a bunch of gibberish and unfulfilled hopes. To get ready for the pre-season, I thought it might add a little intrigue if I came up with a set of keys for surviving and getting value out of these five games. Please note: some of these will be obvious. I know that; you know that; even Dick Jauron knows that, so no need to heckle me like some of you heckled Chris Kelsay at camp last week. Remember, we have five pre-season games to work with this year, so there will be advantages and disadvantages to this heavier pre-season load.
Get Trent to the regular season unscathed. This one falls on the obvious scale somewhere between "Brian is a fan of Lost" and "the sun rises in the east." You don't need me to tell you how important it will be to keep Trent Edwards healthy. For all intents and purposes, his health (and play on the field) will be the biggest factor for how this season plays out. He needs to get his work in against other teams this summer, but he also needs to make it out alive. As you may recall, Trent was hurt last pre-season - albeit in practice - and missed the final two games heading into the regular season. Let's hope we don't have to go through that again.
The Battle of the Dereks. This should be one of the more hotly-contested position battles during the five games, with the best Derek - Derek Fine or Derek Schouman - more than likely securing the starting position heading into the season. I'll be looking for the better blocker, because I think they are both solid enough receivers. Each has underrated athleticism, a good pair of hands and an improving skill set. Unless one really falters, the winner of this battle will be the one who holds up better as the blocker. After these two, I'd like to see Shawn Nelson get comfortable as a receiver first and a blocker second. Jonathan Stupar has a solid chance of making the team as the fourth tight end if the team goes in that direction. He just needs to continue his strong camp and perform with the lights on.
Offensive line, please don't be offensive. The two rookie guards, Eric Wood and Andy Levitre, need to prove they are capable of starting right away; more importantly, they need to prove they won't be overwhelmed. Both have the opportunity and talent to play right away, they just need to take advantage of it and nail down the starting roles. Wood appears more ready at this point, already playing like a hardened veteran, but the extra game should really come in handy for Levitre. Also, with a new starter at each OL position, steady improvement and efficient play is what we'll be looking for out of them. Gelling into a formidable unit prior to the Patriots game would also be welcome. Keeping Trent upright and healthy is the main priority, while gelling is an obvious 1A.
Trent Edwards, Good. J.P. Losman, bad. I see a lot of Losman in Ryan Fitzpatrick, and I'm not talking about beard crafting. He's a mistake-prone player that is known for his questionable decision making on the field. He needs to show less of that this pre-season and more of the efficient quarterback we're looking for to backup Edwards. Fitzpatrick - and to a lesser extent, Gibran Hamdan - needs to prove they are capable players to keep us sane and to make the coaching staff comfortable heading into the season should either be called upon.
Know the no-huddle. It's out there. The league knows the Bills having been working extensively on the no-huddle offense this summer. The element of surprise will not be there, so in order to be effective running this, the team needs to really get comfortable using it this pre-season. I'm not talking about perfecting it (yet), but the offense needs to get the reps in it and needs to have some success. If the plan really is to utilize this throughout the season, then the work needs to be done over the next month to iron out the kinks and see how it works against other defenses. Getting a test run of the new wildcat setup with Roscoe Parrish at quarterback might also be worth trying out.
Defensive bubble players need to crackle, not pop. The starting lineup for the defense is pretty much set in stone at this point, but the battles for roster spots should be fun to watch. John McCargo has been having a good camp thus far, but he needs to carry that over to where it really counts. Even though there is little competition for the fourth DT spot, a poor pre-season could result in the team looking elsewhere for a rotational piece. Nic Harris has a roster spot locked up, but there are a number of other linebackers fighting for what is likely only two more backup roles. Pat Thomas and Alvin Bowen are probably leading the way right now, but Jon Corto, Marcus Buggs and Ashlee Palmer will all have their chances to prove they belong on the opening day roster. The team could keep seven linebackers depending on numbers at other positions. The top five cornerbacks are set, but will the team keep a sixth? Ellis Lankster was a major surprise during the spring and has carried it over to training camp. A strong performance over these five games could vault him onto the opening day roster. The battle for backup safety jobs will also be one to watch, with Ko Simpson, George Wilson and John Wendling likely going after two spots. Special teams play will factor in heavily here, although the players that demonstrate the most ability to help defensively could win out.
Fighting for a nickel. This position battle might be the closest and toughest to predict at this point. Drayton Florence is getting first team reps now and looks to be the favorite, but strong performances in the five pre-season games out of Ashton Youboty or Reggie Corner could win them the job. Remember, Youboty won the starting nickel job last year with a great preseason highlighted by a number of big plays and solid tackling. He might have to do it again to win the job back, assuming he can stay on the field. Corner has been solid, but might not be able to win the job even if he plays well simply because the other two players are getting the job done. No matter how this battle plays out, each of the three will contribute this year. My money continues to be on Florence to win the job. By adding Lankster to the group, this unit is pleasantly deep.
Perfect the wedge. With the new wedge rules in place for kickoff returns, it'll be important for Bobby April and his return unit to get the new formation down pat. April needs to see which players work best in the new formation of two groups of two blockers a few yards apart, even if it's with smaller guys. It'll take time to get used to this new setup; perfecting it by the end of the pre-season is necessary. We have one of the most dynamic return men in the NFL in Leodis McKelvin, so we cannot waste potential big returns and good field position on systematic errors. I have faith Bobby April will have it all worked out come September.
Terrell Owens: I'm well over 1,000 words in without mentioning these two. It just had to be done to keep the Earth spinning.
Be ready. Last year, the team was pretty well prepared for the season heading into Week 1, and it showed, as the team started 4-0. It needs to happen again. With a tough opening slate including road games at New England and Miami, and a pair of games against the AFC South (New Orleans and Tampa Bay), both sides of the ball need to be ready to roll. Hopefully, last year's 0-6 record against AFC East foes and a 2-8 finish will be the nadir for the Dick Jauron era, because a slow start this season might quickly result in the end of that era.
Survive. Beyond keeping Edwards healthy, we absolutely have to hope for no major injuries. It's bound to happen, but I really don't want to see this scene play out in real life. A strong pre-season, coupled with no major injuries, would result in a major success for the next month. Hope for the best.
Feel free to add your keys to the pre-season games in the comment section. There are plenty more to choose from, but I figured these were the most important. It doesn't matter if we go 5-0 or 0-5. What matters most is steady improvement, health and a full head of steam headed into New England. We'll definitely need it.