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The holes certainly haven't been there. Antowain Smith hinted as much a few weeks ago when he said the Bills' offensive linemen weren't aggressive enough for his liking.

But Smith, himself, has looked lethargic at times.

It appears the 6-foot-2, 225-pound running back is still hurting from a groin injury suffered last season. His 2.3-yard average in three preseason games certainly isn't going to convince many people that he's ready for the regular season.

The Bills have a simple response going into Sunday's game against the Indianapolis Colts: Have no fear because the regular season is here. Smith, among others, blamed the pathetic ground game on the fact it came during four exhibition games.

"We're going to be all right," Smith said. "In the preseason, it's limited. We're not going to open up the whole offense because we don't want to show teams what we're going to do in the games. . . . If it still continues in the regular season, then people can get suspicious and start asking questions."

OK, so maybe the Bills haven't pulled out the best plays in their playbook. And maybe their preseason opponents played eight- and nine-man defensive fronts and blitzed with impunity. And maybe quarterbacks don't audible in August as frequently as they would in October. A few quick slants can cure those problems.

Still, the Bills can't feel too good about their running attack going into the season, especially after Smith acknowledged that he's still not fully recovered from groin problems. The injury, which he aggravated in minicamp and again in training camp, hasn't bothered him so much during games or practice, but hours later after the adrenaline dissipates.

"I'm about as well as I can be," Smith said. "I don't think it's any excuse. Right now, I'm about 95 percent and continuing to get better. I don't look at that, and I don't think it will be a problem."

Another problem facing the Bills this weekend is their reshuffled offensive line. In addition to a new center in Jerry Ostroski and a new right tackle in Robert Hicks, they'll be replacing right guard Joe Panos, who will miss Sunday's game due to a bulg
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Bills: Flutie, Johnson skew rushing average
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ing disk in his neck. Dusty Zeigler, demoted from starting center to backup guard, is expected to rotate with bulky Jamie Nails in place of Panos.

Week One should be, well, interesting.

"We're talking about a second-year guy (Hicks) playing tackle for you," Bills coach Wade Phillips said. "It takes time to come along, but I think the benefits are going to be great for us. We'll have a chance to be better, and that's what I'm looking for. Whether we're at the same level as we were last year (after) changing people, that remains to be seen."

One reason the Bills' offense had so much success last season was because Doug Flutie was at quarterback and kept opposing defenses off balance. Another was that Buffalo was third in the league in rushing yards per game (135.9), just behind San Francisco and Denver. That stat is skewed slightly by the fact that Flutie and backup QB Rob Johnson combined for 385 yards on the ground. Excluding the quarterbacks, Buffalo averaged 112 yards a game on the ground.

Smith, despite losing weight since last season, has shown few signs since July that he is the same back who gained 1,124 yards rushing a year ago. The Bills obviously were concerned about his status when they shopped for free agent running back Lawrence Phillips over the summer. Wade Phillips insists, however, that Smith is ready to go.

"I don't think it's hurting him at all," the Bills coach said. "He moves well on the field. It looks like he has his power and he has his speed. He's not hurting. I think he's ready to play a football game. "

Thurman Thomas is still Thurman Thomas, capable of beating other teams running or receiving but no longer an every-down back. He is expected to have a reduced role unless Smith aggravates his injury. Thomas gained three yards on seven carries in the preseason.

The Bills kept just four running backs after cutting free-agent rookie Anthony Gray, who led the team with 176 yards rushing in preseason while playing against mostly rookies and reserves. Sam Gash is a blocking fullback who had just 11 carries all season last year but was still effective enough to make the Pro Bowl. The other back is Jonathon Linton, who had a case of fumblitis before apparently correcting the problem over the last few weeks.

"I don't know if it's a factor of new guys working at new positions or what it is. Hopefully, it will be rectified this week," Flutie said. "We're doing the same type of stuff we were doing last year and we basically have the same types of people. We should be running the ball a little better, and we will. I'm fully confident we will."

One good thing for the Bills is that they should be able to establish a running game against Indy. The Colts were 29th in the league against the run and attempted to address part of the problem by signing former Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett and defensive end Chad Bratzke.

Smith has had some of his best games against the Colts in his two seasons with the Bills. He had 237 yards and four touchdowns in two games last season. He also had a 100-yard day with three TDs in his rookie season.

"I'm looking forward to the regular season," Smith said. "Hopefully, we'll go into this game, get something established on the ground and maybe it will end all the talk about the running game."

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