The Buffalo Bills' offensive line has made strides over the past few weeks. But the unit will see how far it has come when it meets the New York Jets' front four Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Defensive ends John Abraham and Shaun Ellis, nose tackle Jason Ferguson and defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson form one of the NFL's best D-lines. They have 17 of their team's 20 sacks and are the main reason for the Jets' remarkable defensive turnaround.
The Jets are ninth in the NFL in total yards allowed, up from 21st a year ago. They have improved from 28th against the run in 2003 to eighth this season. They also are fourth in points allowed (16.6 per game) and haven't yielded more than 14 points in five straight games. No other Jets defense can make that claim.
"Their front four is good," said Bills left tackle Jonas Jennings. "They're physical, they're fast and they really get to the ball. I think they rely a lot on them, so if you can handle that front four you really got a chance to win the game."
The Jets' foursome had 14 tackles, 3 1/2 of the Jets' four sacks and harassed Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler into two interceptions during a 41-14 win over the Dolphins on Monday night.
They were equally disruptive against the Bills earlier this year when they sacked quarterback Drew Bledsoe four times -- three by Abraham -- and pressured Bledsoe several times in a 16-14 win.
Abraham, Ellis, Ferguson and Robertson are playing so well they are thinking about calling themselves "Fear Factor." They're already being compared to another Jets front four with a more celebrated nickname, "The New York Sack Exchange."
Like the current quartet, Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Abdul Salaam and Marty Lyons terrorized offenses during the 1980s.
"The Sack Exchange did a great thing while they were here and I'm sure that's a good role model for us to have," Abraham said this week. "But I wouldn't compare ourselves to that just yet."
Jets coach Herman Edwards knows the value of a good defensive line. He was an assistant in Tampa Bay from 1996 to 2000, when the Buccaneers' front four became one of the NFL's premier units.
If the Jets' defensive line isn't already in the elite category, Edwards thinks it is getting there.
"I think they're starting to realize they can be pretty good," Edwards said this week. "It takes some time for them to grow. In Tampa, we had an excellent front and it took them a couple years to get together and play together. I think we're starting to feel our way through that."
Abraham has returned to his Pro Bowl form of 2001 and 2002. After missing eight games with a groin injury and being benched for the first Bills game because of a drunken-driving arrest, the fifth-year veteran leads the NFL with 8 1/2 sacks.
Ellis (3 1/2 sacks) is coming off a year in which he had a career-high 12 sacks and earned his first Pro Bowl berth.
Robertson, selected fourth overall in the 2003 draft, has come back strong after a disappointing rookie year. He has 23 tackles, two sacks and is drawing more double teams. Ferguson, the unsung member of the group, is off to the best start of his eight-year career with 24 tackles and three sacks.
"Their front four is definitely the strength of their defense," said Bills right guard Chris Villarrial. "As an offensive line, we have a tremendous challenge in front of us on Sunday."
The Jets' front four has taken pressure off the secondary, which struggles in pass coverage. Having a D-line that can rush the passer gives defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson more flexibility. He doesn't have to blitz as much and he can drop extra people into coverage.
Bledsoe is dangerous when he gets time to throw, but the offensive line has struggled to keep rushers off him when he has to stand in the pocket and wait for a receiver to get open. The longer he holds on to the ball, the greater chance he'll get sacked.
The Jets' front four excels in obvious passing situations, especially Abraham, who has 42 career sacks. He's sacked Bledsoe 8 1/2 times, the most of any quarterback.
"He's not a moving guy," said Abraham, whose first NFL sack came at Bledsoe's expense. "He kind of stays there. He tries to wait as long as he can to throw the ball. It's a good situation for a D-line."
Although the Jets' front four is playing the run better, establishing a rushing attack may be the best way to slow down their pass rush.
The Jets are already acquainted with long-time nemesis Travis Henry. Now they have to contend with Willis McGahee, who has added a big-play dimension to the Bills' running game.
"You've got to run it at them," Bledsoe said. "Their front four is tremendous and what they bring off the edges is probably as good as anybody's in the league. You just can't make a living dropping back and blocking one-on-one. But when you have to drop back and throw it, we're going to ask our tackles to be up to the task. But we also have to give them help."
NEW YORK JETS SACK LEADERS
John Abraham RDE* 8.5
Shaun Ellis LDE3.5
Jason Ferguson RDT3.5
Dewayne Robertson LDT2.0
Eric Barton ROLB1.5