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Protecting Johnson is still the key to success
Bills down Bengals, but questions remain.
by Rick Anderson, webmaster of Bills Thunder
August 26, 2001

The New Orleans Saints are circling September 9th on their calenders with a big magic marker and putting the initials RJ in the circle. Can the Buffalo Bills circle the wagons and protect their fragile quarterback Rob Johnson more than they did Saturday night in Cincinnati? That is the big question surrounding the Bills as they attempt to devise a formula to protect Johnson once the regular season starts.

The Bengals, who were one of the worst teams recording sacks last year, got to the Bills Qbs six times Saturday. Rob Johnson was the victim on four of those. Can the Bills shore up their offensive line in time to prevent a massive dismantling of Johnson by the sack-happy Saints come September 9th? That remains to be seen.

The Bills beat the Bengals 20-10 in a game that had as many miscues as it did positive plays for both teams. Johnson once again had trouble staying alive behind a line made up of 3 newcomers to the NFL. He got sacked 4 times and was hurried on most attempts to throw. The Bills No. 1 signal-caller threw 19 times, completed 8 of them for 81 yards. He finally managed to complete a 13-yarder to Jeremy McDaniel in the second quarter. In all, Johnson is still trying to get comfortable with his new linemen and the West Coast offense instilled this year by Bills head coach Gregg Williams.

Van Pelt, meanwhile, is having the time of his life back there. The second stringer whom the Bills had to call back last season after letting him go, is having his best training camp yet. Last week, he looked very good working in the West Coast offense and against the Bengals, he continued his solid play in a system that he is well familiar with. Van Pelt completed 6 of 11 for 48 yards and also tossed a touchdown.

It was a fourth quarter drive that Van Pelt looked like the confident veteran that he is becoming. Van Pelt faked a handoff and rolled to his right, spotting tight end Josh Whitman in the endzone. He lobbed the pass right into Whitman's hands and came back with the exact same play to get a two-point conversion, hitting Dan O'Leary in the exact same spot.

Will Johnson be pressured by Van Pelt for his No. 1 quarterback spot? That will never happen. Johnson is the No. 1 quarterback and Van Pelt knows his place. He is there just in case if Johnson gets hurt, which is very feasible considering the state of the offensive line. But it is good to know that Van Pelt is very adapt in the West Coast offense and is ready to step in there on a moment's notice.

Both Johnson and Van Pelt were seen smiling and having a great rapport on the sidelines near the end of the game. What a contrast from last year, when there was a definite friction between Doug Flutie and Johnson. Van Pelt will be able to help Johnson adapt to the West Coast style and give him plenty of pointers along the way. Flutie never attained the rapport that Johnson has with Van Pelt.

The Bills offense struggled in the first half despite their defense setting them up with golden opportunities. Antoine Winfield got two second quarter picks and the Bills also recovered a fumble when defensive end Bryce Fisher got a sack forcing the ball loose.

The Bills running back situation became more clouded as Sammy Morris and Curtis Alexander had decent numbers. Alexander galloped for a 55-yard burst to go along with his 78 total yards on the ground. Morris had 52 yards on 10 carries. Travis Henry, who everyone but coach Williams has penciled in as the starter against the Saints, had 35 yards on 7 carries. Henry still appears to have the edge as he has a lot of the same running skills possessed by former Bills great Thurman Thomas.

Winfield looked impressive in his two interceptions. Both of them resulted in the Bills putting up numbers on the scoreboard. Steve Christie, who had a terrible night, missing three other field goal attempts, kicked a 43-yarder after Winfield's first pick. After the second interception, Johnson was able to finally get the Bills into the endzone.

Winfield's first pick led to a 43-yard field goal by place-kicker Steve Christie and the other resulted in a 13-yard touchdown pass from Johnson to wide receiver Jeremy McDaniel that gave Buffalo the lead for good.

"It's all about being a pro," said Winfield, who said he settled down after being picked on at the beginning of the game. "I've been in this game a long time, and it's my third year in the NFL. The big thing is how you react to those things, and I thought I reacted well."

The Bills defense also recorded 6 sacks. One of which was a safety recorded by sophomore defensive end Erik Flowers who sacked Bengals quarterback Scott Mitchell.

The Bengals also were able to rip off 183 yards on the ground against the Bills (which included a 76-yard touchdown by Brandon Bennett), something that Williams will have to address.

"Some of the plays I'll have to go back and see the film and see where we made the mistakes," said Williams. "I can't correct those right away, I have to see the film first then go from there."

The Bills settled down in the second half, using their second stringers and they did a decent job.

"The first team defense played really well and I thought I second team played just as good," lauded Williams. " I thought our punt coverage was good. It was very aggressive and that was positive to see. With the ball being wet and other factors, it is good to get in a game with these kinds of elements we'll face in the regular season."

On the offensive side of the ball, it was very apparent that the Bills offensive line is going through a lot of growing pains. There were plenty of false starts and other offensive line penalties that will have to be corrected immediately. Overall, including defensive penalties, the Bills committed 9 infractions for 76 yards.

"Obviously, we had way too many penalties," said Johnson. "It's hard to get into a rhythm when you have that many penalties. It's hard to call plays when you're in negative situations all the time. I thought that, in the first half, we did all right. We could have put up more points, but overall with all the penalties, I thought we did an alright job of staying in the game."

Williams will instill in his players the importance of cutting way down on the penalties.

"It's still something to work on," Williams said about correcting the penalties. "We've got to do a better job of that. I will tell you this, that there was a couple of situations out there where I've got to see the film to find out where some of those things are before I get a chance to correct them."

With all the good, bad and ugly that came out of that victory over Cincinnati, the one huge question remains to be answered. Just how do the Bills protect Rob Johnson this season? The Bills offensive line looked much better with Van Pelt behind them, but the main goal is to create the same scenario for Johnson when he is behind his unproven center this season. Whether the Bills shore up their O'Line through picking up some veteran help via the waiver wire or by getting better performance out of their young starters on the line, one thing is clear: For the Bills to have a successful season this year, they have to protect Johnson much better than they have been so far in the preseason.

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