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STEVENS MAKES STRONG IMPRESSION, PROGRESS TO BE GAUGED BY COATES

Buffalo Bills rookie Matt Stevens has played a grand total of three games at the safety position in his football career.

In No. 4 on Sunday, he goes up against one of the best tight ends in the NFL, New England's Ben Coates.

"It's going to be good to see where I stand," said Stevens. "I'll just try my best."

Stevens' best has been good enough -- so far -- in his young pro career.

He was forced into the starting lineup three weeks ago against Indianapolis when star strong safety Henry Jones suffered a broken leg.

The Bills think Stevens has a good enough combination of coverage ability and toughness to handle the strong safety spot, which demands great versatility.

"It takes a lot of poise to do what Matt's doing," said defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. "Taking over for Henry is a big job. We put a lot of pressure on Henry to be a cover guy and a force guy. But Matt has handled it well."

Stevens was a third-round draft choice of the Bills out of Appalachian State, where he was two-time first-team Division I-AA All-America. He spent his entire college career at cornerback.

A serious knee injury late in his senior season kept him from being a sure second-rounder and possibly even a late first-round choice in the draft.

Stevens, however, recovered ahead of schedule and was able to open training camp with the Bills. Scouts considered him a player with adequate speed to play cornerback in the NFL and exceptional speed and range for a safety.

"About half the NFL teams that talked to me wanted me at corner and the other half were going to play me at safety," Stevens said.

That made him a perfect fit for the Bills, who place a huge emphasis on coverage skills and love to convert college cornerbacks to safety, as they did with Jones and Kurt Schulz.

The question was could the 6-foot, 200-pound Stevens play physical enough? He has decent size. Jones is 5-11, 196.

"He wasn't a safety at all in college," Phillips said. "So it was a nice surprise for us to see in training camp how physical he was."

Stevens was surprised he was the choice to replace Jones.

"I really didn't think they were going to start me," he said. "I thought they'd put someone else in."

"We thought maybe we'd have to go back and forth with different players at that position to change up," Phillips said. "But he's done a real solid job. We haven't had to."

Stevens showed some quickness and instincts in making his first interception last week against the Jets.

"It was basically just a reaction to the ball," he said. "I turned the guy loose because we were in zone, and I saw the ball thrown, and luckily the receiver dropped it."

Stevens also had a roughing the passer penalty on a blitz that helped the Jets march to a tying TD.

"I was already in the air," Stevens said. "I should have pulled off, but I guess that's one of the things you learn through experience."

Stevens said the mental challenge of the position has been more difficult than the physical challenge.

"I didn't have to read at all in college," he said. "Now I have to read on the run and make split-second decisions, read the offense after the snap is made. . . . I've messed up here and there, but overall they're pleased with me."

This week may be the ultimate challenge.

Coates has 32 receptions, the second-most of any tight end in the league. He is averaging 9.8 yards a catch and has four touchdowns.

"Coates is a tough guy to handle if you haven't played against him," said Jones. "He's a little different. He likes to play with a lot of contact, and he plays really physical all game. Even when you're not getting physical with him, he's trying to get physical with you so he can create separation and get the ball."

"We're used to saying, 'Henry's got the tight end, don't worry about that,' " Phillips said. "It's a little different now. We'll try to help him some this week. We even helped Henry with Coates. We'll try to get some other people with him."

The Bills no doubt will try to put defenders deep and short of Coates at times. Phillips said they do not want Stevens trying to jam Coates at the line.

"Bryce Paup can jam him on the line of scrimmage," Phillips said. "But defensive backs don't have much chance playing tough on him. He'll overpower them. They just have to be able to run with him and stay underneath him most of the time."
Receiver Steve Tasker had no problem with his foot in Thursday's practice. Bruce Smith sat out with a sore ankle. "It's swollen and sore," said Smith, who expects to play Sunday. Linebacker Sam Rogers (ankle) practiced with the first unit for a second straight day and will reclaim his starting spot as long as his ankle holds up. Gabe Northern has filled in for him the past three games. . . . New England's injured starters, receiver Vincent Brisby (hamstring) and cornerback Ricky Reynolds (ankle), both appear very questionable. Reynolds did not practice. Brisby worked with the scout team. So converted safety Willie Clay likely will make his second straight start at cornerback for the Pats.

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