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Kimberley A. Martin: Charles Clay eager to be impact player Bills need

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The formula for stopping Sean McDermott’s team is no secret at all: Stack the box and stop Shady.

It’s not novel. It’s not new.

Running back LeSean McCoy is their igniter, the lifeblood of their offensive production and the source of their emotional energy. Everyone on the team knows it. And so do their opponents.

When in doubt, defenses should force Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor to beat coverages through the air.

Can he do it? Sure.

Can he do it consistently? Now, that’s the real question.

Until Taylor proves he’s just as reliable going deep as he is in the open field, it’ll be open-season on the 29-year-old McCoy.

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The Jets tried to stop him on Sunday, but wound up grasping at air as the shifty back stutter-stepped passed slow-footed defenders. But the Bills’ next foe, the Carolina Panthers, present an even tougher challenge and a much better linebacking corps (Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis combined for 12 tackles against the 49ers in Week 1, with Kuechly also intercepting Brian Hoyer on the second play from scrimmage in the second half.)

So if McDermott expects his offense to be productive against Carolina, someone other than Shady has to provide a spark. And, perhaps, that guy is tight end Charles Clay. 

The Panthers were third-best in overall defense last season (217 yards a game) and had the fifth-best run defense, allowing 51 rushing yards a contest. But the unit was second-worst (to the Cleveland Browns) against tight ends, according to ProFootballReference.com, allowing 78 receptions (on 133 targets) for 905 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Clay is no Rob Gronkowski nor is he Travis Kelce. But he sees himself as an impact player nonetheless. He had a team-high nine targets in the Bills’ 21-12 win over the Jets, catching four passes for 53 yards a 1-yard touchdown.

The 28-year-old also understands the identity of his team and the keys to future Bills’ victories: Run the football. Set up the play-action pass. And run the ball some more.

But while he views himself as a role player, he also believes he can be a game-changer too.

“It’s no question in my mind that I can be,” said the former Dolphin, who signed a five-year, $38 million deal with the Bills in 2015.

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Whenever you sign a contract like that, expectations come with it, acknowledged Clay, whose first two seasons in Buffalo were slowed by a knee injury. He knows there are fans who view him as a disappointment, but he insisted he’s more focused on putting in the work on the practice field to help the Bills win on gameday and reach the playoffs for the first time in almost two decades.

Clay’s versatility, both as a blocker and pass-catcher, is an asset for an offense that has few weapons besides McCoy and Taylor. Rookie receiver Zay Jones is still building up confidence as a route-runner and NFL receiver (he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s good at a lot of things, not elite in any one area just yet). And Jordan Matthews still has to assert himself as a bona fide playmaker in the Bills’ new-look offense. But time will tell if Clay (or the rest of the receivers) will be as productive as they think they can be.

Clay admittedly set his individual goals “way high” this season: 90 catches, 900 yards.

“Granted you might not get there,” he said, “but I don’t aim low. Never that.”

He defended his skill set with an air of confidence too. If any player, at any position were to get hurt, “they could easily just plug me right in and I’ll be fine. You can put me anywhere," he said.

McCoy is their motor, but Clay understands that tight ends have a responsibility in Rick Dennison’s offense: be multidimensional.

“I tell people all the time,” Clay said. “Outside of the quarterback, the tight end probably has to know more than anybody else on the offense.”

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Asked the key to containing the Bills offense, he hesitated, then chuckled nervously. “I don’t know if I want to say,” he said.

It’s OK, Clay. Everyone else knows.

“You could try loading the box, but teams have done that and we’ve still been able to run the ball,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Force us to drop back and throw it. But that would leave a lot of one-on-one matchups on the outside, and I feel we have the playmakers to be one-on-one. I don’t care who we’re going up against in the league.”

But opponents won’t respect the Bills’ passing attack until him, Jones, Matthews and veteran Andre Holmes make defenses pay.

And Clay knows that too.

Before heading to the weight room, the tight end smiled and said: “You’re right.”

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