By Jonah Bronstein
— CLEVELAND — As dazzling as he can be, C.J. Spiller is not indispensable.
As much as the Buffalo Bills lack a suitable replacement, Ryan Fitzpatrick is not irreplaceable.
It sure is an unremarkable group of receivers beyond Stevie Johnson, but Fitz would still find ways to move the ball without his top pass-catcher.
That the Bills offense can function with so many spare parts is a testament to coach Chan Gailey’s ingenuity, but also the collective strength of its unsung offensive line.
Without a household name in the bunch, the Bills’ blockers keyed Sunday’s 24-14 win over the Browns and showed that as long as this unit remains relatively healthy, the wheels won’t fall off the wagon no matter how thin the team gets at the skill positions.
The Bills were temporarily deflated when C.J. Spiller was knocked out of the game in the first quarter, but in the end, third string running back Tashard Choice was able to amass 91 yards on 20 carries, and his backup, Johnny White, picked up another 15 yards on two totes.
Over the last 19 regular season games, Buffalo running backs have averaged 5.37 yards per carry, while Buffalo quarterbacks have been sacked a league-low 24 times.
The only sack the Bills have given up this season wasn’t really a sack at all. If not for Fitzpatrick losing a fumble in the rain Sunday, the Bills would’ve become just the seventh team since 1970 to allow zero sacks in the first three games.
I’m not going to go so far as to say the Bills have the best offensive line in the league. But can you point to a group that is playing any better?
“If I were building a team, they are exactly what I would want,” defensive lineman Kyle Williams said Sunday. “They’re all tough, blue-collar guys. They play hard, they care about each other, and they care about the team.”
Gailey and GM Buddy Nix didn’t build this line from scratch. Center Eric Wood and left guard Andy Levitre, both high draft choices, were inherited building blocks, byproducts of the decision to trade stud tackle Jason Peters to Philadelphia. Starters Erik Pears (right tackle) and Kraig Urbik (right guard) and utility lineman Chad Rinehart were all claimed off waivers late in the 2010 season. After allowing incumbent left tackle Demetress Bell to walk in free agency and declining to sign a replacement, the Bills snapped up Cordy Glenn, a natural guard, in the second round and three the rookie into the fire.
You’ve barely noticed Glenn in his first three starts. That’s a good thing.
Five of the Bills’ top six linemen were drafted in the first three rounds (Pears went undrafted), but none of them have ever even sniffed a Pro Bowl nor are they among the highest-paid players at their position. The group is getting it done with toughness and technique, a credit to position coach Joe D’Alessandris and the chemistry the line has developed over the last few seasons.
“That helps a ton,” Wood said. “Offensive linemen need to play with each other. We all know our strengths and weaknesses. We know how to communicate well on the field together. We all trust each other.”
“Cordy has done a great job of hopping right in and jelling with the group,” Wood added. “He does a good job of just going to work each day and being a productive player for us.”
“It starts with Joe (D’Allessandris),” Gailey said earlier this week. “I think that’s the kind of guy he is. He’s a no-nonsense, hit-them-in-the-mouth kind of coach. I think we have players that have the same attitude and they take that into a ballgame.”
Wood also praised the players on the edges who help make the line look good.
“A lot of things contribute to offensive line play and the numbers that get attributed to us,” he said. “We’ve got receivers that are willing to block. That helps us a ton. We have a quarterback that does a great job of not hanging us out to dry.”
Wood’s injury woes and instability at left tackle have been the biggest issues holding the line back the last two seasons. We’ll see if Wood can manage to stay healthy for a full season, which will also allow him to participate fully in the offseason weightlifting program. If that happens, he’ll soon be regarded as one of the game’s top centers, and the Bills will have to pay him accordingly when his contract comes up in a year.
First, the Bills must decide what to do with Levitre, who may not be quite as stout and talented as Wood, but is more reliable and versatile enough to play tackle and center (as long as it’s not raining). The prevailing logic is to not pay top dollar for guards, and Rinehart is a capable reserve. Urbik is up for an extension, too. But Levitre is too good for the Bills to be too cheap in dealing with.
For now, however, the Bills possess one of the game’s premier offensive lines, a luxury that masks weakness at other positions.
Contact sports editor Jonah Bronstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.