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Lynch makes forward progress Tough yards gained keep Bills' drives alive

If ever there was an example of a player's numbers being deceiving, it's those posted by Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch.

Through four games, Lynch has rushed for 275 yards and averaged just 3.5 yards on 79 carries. Neither figure puts him among the top 10 rushers in the NFL.

But Lynch's stat line does not do justice to the season he is having. The second-year pro has been just what the Bills need: a heavy-duty ball carrier who can grind out tough yards and grind down defenses.

Lynch also has been a force in the red zone, scoring four touchdowns, and is the Bills' third-leading receiver with 12 catches.

Just as important, Lynch is keeping drives alive. He is fourth in the AFC and seventh in the NFL with 22 first downs. Sixteen of his runs have moved the chains forward, a total that is second only to Kansas City running back Larry Johnson's 19 in the AFC and ranks sixth league-wide.

The Bills talked about giving Lynch a bigger role as a receiver this season, and they have followed through on that promise. His 12 receptions are only six below last season's total.

Yes, the Beast Mode is in full effect.

But the Beast isn't talking, so we'll let others speak for him.

"I joke with Marshawn all the time. I tell him to go out and soften them up for me," said Fred Jackson, Lynch's understudy. "He makes it easier on me. He's a hard-nosed guy. He's going to go out and just grind you, and that's definitely wearing on a defense. I think that's why we're having so much success late in games."

"The yards after contact, they don't measure that," added offensive coordinator Turk Schonert. "He competes his butt off, and you see it out there and it's infectious."

Lynch hasn't ripped off any big runs, but he's registered several significant gains. He has eight runs of 10 or more yards and one over 20.

About the only thing Lynch hasn't done is gain 100 yards in a game, though he would have topped the century mark last Sunday at St. Louis if runs of 20 and 27 yards had not been nullified by penalties.

It should be noted that Lynch didn't have a 100-yard day until the eighth game of last season, when he rolled up 153 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown, in a win over Cincinnati.

Lynch's teammates say he is more concerned about winning games than gaining 100 yards, but they believe that breakout game is coming, perhaps on Sunday at Arizona.

"It's getting closer," right guard Brad Butler said. "He obviously showed last year and in the preseason he can do it. He's running the ball as hard as he can, so it falls on the offensive line right now to pick up some of those extra blocks so he can have that breakout game."

Schonert said there are plays where Lynch could have gained big yardage if he got another block or two.

"What we've got to do is block longer," he said. "We didn't do that long enough on Sunday, so we've got to finish blocking, all positions, because our backs break tackles. Instead of a 3-yard gain we should be getting maybe 8-yard gains, and those 8-yard gains should be 15 and 16. We can't stand around thinking the play is over. We've got to finish a little better."

Finishing runs has never been a problem for Lynch, who always seems to fall forward when he's tackled. His powerful leg drive and upper body strength help him make plays in situations that appear impossible.

One play against Oakland two weeks ago embodied that ability.

The Bills had a second-and-5 from their 20-yard line when Lynch caught a short dump-off pass from quarterback Trent Edwards. The play should have been stopped for little or no gain, but Lynch eluded two linebackers, bounced outside toward the left sideline and gained 17 yards.

That great individual effort ignited a 16-play, 96-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Lynch and set the stage for the Bills' dramatic 24-23 come-from-behind victory over the Raiders.

"That's the advantage of having those kind of guys," Schonert said. "We don't have to chuck it down the field. We can dump off and give him a 2-, 3-yard pass and he makes the guy miss and now we've got an 8, 9, 10-yard gain. Both of those guys [Lynch and Jackson] bring that to the table. It gives defenses troubles. They've got to decide how they are going to match up."

History shows that Bills running backs rarely experience the sophomore jinx. Most of them, in fact -- Thurman Thomas, Travis Henry and Willis McGahee, to name a few -- actually had better second seasons than they did as rookies.

Lynch, who rushed for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 starts last season, looks like he will follow in those footsteps.

"Marshawn's a special football player," Butler said. "He's only scratched the surface of his ability."

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Cornerback Terrence McGee (sprained knee) was the only player not at practice Friday. He won't make the trip to Arizona. Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud (shoulder) and defensive end Aaron Schobel (foot) practiced on a limited basis, but both are expected to play Sunday.

In Arizona, wide receiver Anquan Boldin has officially been ruled out of Sunday's game after having surgery to repair the sinus fracture suffered during a helmet-to-helmet collision against the New York Jets last week.

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The Bills in September sold every general seating ticket for all of their home games, marking their fastest season sellout in club history. The team still has a limited number of tickets for the Time Warner Cable Business and M&T Bank clubs and other premium seats.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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