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Pass Protection Could Be Bills Offense's Achilles Heel

In 2009, the Buffalo Bills started three different players at quarterback. Trent Edwards, who started the season atop the depth chart, was sacked 23 times. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was somewhat adequate as Edwards' replacement, was sacked 21 times. Brian Brohm, who made exactly one start when both Edwards and Fitzpatrick were injured, was sacked twice. In all, the Bills surrendered 46 sacks on the season, tied for the fourth-highest total in the league, and according to Football Outsiders, the Bills had the worst adjusted sack rate in the league.

Fans are generally down about Buffalo's quarterback depth chart at the moment, and the team is unlikely to be anything more than middling unless the team upgrades at the position. But everyone claiming that the quarterbacks might not have a shot to even be average clearly has a good point, too.

To date in training camp, the interior of the offensive line - Andy Levitre, Geoff Hangartner and Eric Wood - have been consistent, if not perfect, protecting the passer. The real problem lies at tackle, where the top three players on the depth chart all have serious question marks. Even on an offense that enters 2010 with the not-unreasonable goal of being average enough to keep the team in games, the inability to protect whichever quarterback starts could prevent a near-.500 finish.

When four-year veteran Brad Butler decided to hang up his cleats to pursue a political career in his native Virginia, the Bills signed former Oakland right tackle Cornell Green to take his place. Green, who will turn 34 years old in three weeks, signed a three-year, $9 million deal to start in Buffalo a year after getting flagged for 12 penalties and giving up six sacks (according to Pro Football Focus) on a terrible Raiders offense. To date, Green has looked dependable while run blocking and seems to have retained solid athleticism for a man his age, but he has been torched by Buffalo's inexperienced outside linebackers on more than one occasion.

Jamon Meredith, a second-year player out of South Carolina that has been with the Bills for less than a full calendar year, received the bulk of the first-team reps at left tackle during spring workouts. He has seen some work there in training camp, as well, and has also taken second-team reps on the right side as the Bills try to mold him into a serviceable backup tackle capable of playing either side. Meredith acquitted himself well during limited playing time as a rookie, but has arguably been the worst tackle on the field in camp, struggling with speed rushers off the edge and allowing defenders to get into his pads far too often as a run blocker.

The real enigma at the position, however, is third-year tackle Demetrius Bell. Tabbed as the starter on the blind side at the outset of the 2009 season, Bell struggled mightily in his first extensive NFL action, appearing in just eight games, giving up five sacks and getting flagged eight times in that half of his first "real" season. Bell landed on IR with an ACL injury; rehabbing that injury kept him out of spring workouts, and he still isn't fully participating in training camp (though he did see his first 11-on-11 team work within the past two or three days). Bell is clearly the preferred starter at left tackle, but we haven't seen him play live football since Dick Jauron's last game as Bills head coach; the jury is still very much out.

The simple fact that we have yet to really see Bell perform to this point in camp is both terrifying, and fuel for the optimistic fires still burning in Bills fans' brains. We already know that head coach Chan Gailey likes Bell as a pure athlete, but even he hasn't seen Bell play enough to claim that he likes him as a player. Until we see otherwise - and that might not happen until the second or third pre-season game - there's still every chance that Bell has progressed to the point where he'll be slightly more consistent in his second year as the starter, and perhaps have longer stretches of competency, as well.

These are the three tackles that, should the Bills avoid the injury bug (which seems to still be infesting the organization), will likely see the most playing time at tackle. Buffalo will be fine up the middle. Unless these three players improve drastically, Gailey finds an ingenious way to mask their deficiencies with clever route combinations and a healthy dose of play-action passes, what might be an average offense will fall well short of that mark.