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OFFENSIVE LINE FLUNKS LAST PRESEASON EXAM

Remember this time a year ago, when hands were being wrung and teeth gnashed over the Bills' offensive line?

Remember how the linemen went into a powerful snit over the criticism they received? How Ruben Brown led a boycott of the media and all their lips were sealed, except for an occasional snarl? How their coach, Carl Mauck, was in a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week bad mood over what he considered the slander of his boys?

Well, the exhibition season ended Saturday night and Snit Time '99 may be upon us.

We're seven days away from the opening of the regular season and the offensive line -- in a long dress rehearsal against Pittsburgh -- was, in a word, ghastly.

Granted, the Bills' forward wall has experienced major changes. A month ago right tackle Jerry Ostroski became the starting center, second-year man Robert Hicks inherited Ostroski's right tackle job and center Dusty Zeigler was demoted. This past week a neck injury removed right guard Joe Panos from the starting lineup. That's a lot of changes for one unit.

Granted also, good NFL offensive line play doesn't just happen, it requires choreography and the time to achieve it. But the line has been rehearsing its steps and attempting to blend its chemistry through four preseason games.

It's still bumping into the furniture.

Never mind Saturday night's final score, 16-14 for Buffalo, the fact is that when the Bills ran the ball it was a triumph if they made it to the line of scrimmage. After Thurman Thomas gained six yards the first time Buffalo ran the ball, the next seven running plays brought these results: No gain, minus four yards, plus two, plus two, plus five, plus one, no gain.

I know that last season the Bills opened with two similarly horrible shows by their line. It then straightened out its act to the point where the offense finished third in the AFC in ground-gaining. Is that turnaround going to happen again? From here it looks like a long shot for a couple of reasons.

One is that Hicks isn't playing as well at right tackle as he did when he filled in for John Fina at left tackle for three games, one of which earned him a game ball. The other reason is that all that progress made by huge Jamie Nails, Panos' backup at right guard, a season ago seems to have melted away at a local barbecue. Zeigler started at right guard against the Steelers, but neither he nor Nails, who played a lot, had more than a teaspoonful of success.

It wasn't all traceable to shoddy play by the line. Running back Antowain Smith seemed too slow getting off the mark on a couple of plays and still doesn't seem comfortable lining up in a two-man set with Pro Bowl fullback Sam Gash. Since Gash's blocking is vital in an offense where the linemen can't seem to knock the opposition off the ball, Smith better get used to playing with him and quickly.

In the AFC East, running the ball effectively is vital, especially late in the season when the frost is on the pigskin. If the Bills can't pick up their ground game, they'll risk being trampled in the most competitive division in the NFL.

Speaking of getting trampled, that's what almost happened to Rob Johnson when he succeeded Doug Flutie at quarterback after Buffalo's opening series in the first quarter. Johnson was sacked four times. A fifth sack was wiped out by a Pittsburgh penalty. Johnson also was pressured at least that often until he left the game late in the third quarter.

There was no running game available to lessen the pressure from the pass rush.

The only hip-hip-hooray aspect of the game was the play of the offense under the direction of Flutie. The little guy launched two dandy touch passes, the first one a streak pattern for 29 yards by Eric Moulds and the second a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jay Riemersma.

Why was Flutie yanked after just one series? Maybe Wade Phillips is following Marv Levy's old philosophy with Jim Kelly: "He looked good and that's enough. So get him out of there before he gets hurt." On the other hand, maybe it was Wade's own mercy rule, with Flutie the recipient of the mercy.

The Steelers have a highly skilled, big and experienced front defensive seven. That presented what should have been a welcome challenge for a bunch that has Super Bowl aspirations, a team that the Sporting News in this week's issue predicted would compile a 12-4 record.

The Bills flunked the challenge.

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