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12th Man contributes to a display of bully ball

Safety Aaron Williams sensed it when Rex Ryan was giving his speech to the team Saturday night. Williams looked down at his clenched hands and felt them trembling in his lap. He looked around at his teammates, who seemed ready to run through the hotel walls.

“When Rex gave his speech, I could see everybody’s fingers, everybody’s legs, bouncing on the chairs,” Williams said Sunday. “Everybody was ready to go. I was getting fired up, and it wasn’t even time for the game yet.”

Throughout the far-flung Bills Nation, the fans were no doubt feeling the same way. After all these months of buildup, they could barely wait for the season opener against the Colts, the much-anticipated debut of the Ryan era.

Ryan sensed it, too. But despite having called on the fans to be a loud, disruptive partying force, even he was surprised by how emotionally jacked-up the 12th Man was for the season opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

“I came out and our fans were up the whole time,” Ryan said after the Bills’ rousing, 27-14 victory over Indianapolis. “It was unbelievable. They were standing the entire time for the introductions. They knew it was going to be a special day and so did I. I was like, ‘You can sit down anytime soon.’

“But I forgot, this is Buffalo.”

He had only himself to blame. Ryan said Wednesday that he wanted the crowd on its feet; his team gave the people every reason to stand up and exult as they dominated Andrew Luck and the Colts and gave Ryan a victory in his Buffalo debut.

Ryan had promised to build a bully, one that would be tough and ready to play and intimidated by no one. That’s how they looked Sunday, like a well-prepared bully pushing the kids from the other neighborhood around the playground.

“Yeah, it felt like that,” said defensive back Nickell Robey. “When you’re a bully, you don’t have to worry about what someone’s going to do to you. You worry about what you’re doing to the other person.”

The Bills generally had their way with Luck, the best young quarterback in the NFL. Despite the absence of Marcell Dareus and an injury to Corey Graham on the opening play, they befuddled Luck with Ryan’s myriad of blitzes and harried him into one of the worst days of his four-year career.

Luck was 26 for 49 for 243 yards and two interceptions, the sort of pedestrian performance more typical of a mediocre QB who pads his numbers in a one-sided loss. It was reminiscent of their win last December against Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who had the worst statistical game of his career.

So while the Bills defense has a tendency to let you down on occasion, it remains an elite unit that can hold its own against the best quarterbacks in the league. And the early returns suggest that Ryan, one of the best defensive minds in the game, might actually make it better.

But Ryan didn’t build this bully by himself. General Manager Doug Whaley is the chief architect, and while I’ve taken issue with some of Whaley’s moves, this victory was an early validation of the way he’s reshaped the roster.

Virtually every new face made a big contribution against the Colts. It starts with quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who lived up to his billing as the People’s Choice with a sensational performance in his first NFL start, making a few eye-popping athletic plays and a lot of simple, efficient ones, too.

Wide receiver Percy Harvin, vilified in his previous stops, caught a 51-yard TD bomb for the game’s first score and led the Bills with five catches for 79 yards. LeSean McCoy had a modest 41 yards rushing, but had 46 yards on three receptions and a 12-yard TD run that got called back.

Rookie running back Karlos Williams broke a 26-yard TD run on the first carry of his career and led the team in rushing. Fellow rookie Ronald Darby, the source of much hand-wringing among fans, had an interception and acquitted himself nicely in his first game as an NFL cornerback.

The offensive line had a decent day as new guards John Miller and Richie Incognito held up well in pass protection, though the run blocking left a little to be desired. It will have to be much better against the stout defensive lines in the division.

But all in all, it was an encouraging day for the offense, perhaps a sign that a lot of fine defensive efforts won’t be going to waste this season, as they have so often in years past.

“It feels great,” Bacarri Rambo said. “When you’re a defensive person, watching the offense from the bench, seeing the chains move – by the way, Tyrod did a great job today – it’s nice to see. I mean, that’s what football is all about!”

A lot of it gets back to coaching. It was a gratifying start for Ryan, whose father, Buddy, a defensive coaching icon, was on hand Sunday. On a day when the Bills honored the 1964-65 championship teams and put Lou Saban on the Wall, Ryan became the first head coach (out of 18) to win his Bills debut in a season opener.

Maybe that’s an indication that this season will be different from so many others over the past 15 years, when Bills teams got off to promising starts only to falter as the season wore on.

This team is deeper overall and more talented than those teams. If they can stay healthy, and if Taylor continues to play at a high level, they have a good chance to end the drought.

Tom Brady and the sinister Patriots come to town next week. It’ll be another chance for the 12th Man to assert itself. The noise made it difficult for the Colts to function at the line of scrimmage. Robey said it made it easier for the Bills’ defense to predict when the Colts were going to snap the football.

“It was very evident when he was making their checks,” Robey said. “They were really talking. Then we had the cadence. That was a huge difference, because now we run our pressure knowing when he was going to snap the ball. He was snapping it between six and eight seconds and we hit it.”

The crowd was so loud, it was also difficult for the Buffalo defense to hear its signals at times. Ryan said he’ll pump up the volume in practice, so his defense will be more ready next week. The 12th Man is largely a defensive phenomenon, so he’s not going to ask them to sit down now.

“Our crowd is the best,” said Kyle Williams, “no doubt about it. They’re so good, sometimes they cause us a little bit of problem, but you don’t want to change it. Keep it up.”


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