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HULKS ABOUND, BUT FEW LINES ARE PULLING THEIR WEIGHT

As the Bills get ready for their game against Indianapolis Monday night, their major problems are an inability to convert third-down situations and the lack of a consistent running game.

They aren't alone.

Those are common complaints around the parity-stuffed NFL of today. The seat of the problem also is a common one: absence of a first-rank offensive line.

NFL offensive lines have never been more massive. It is normal to see 300-pounders from tackle to tackle. The skill level is another story, however. There is a plague of blitzing in the league, exotic and risky stuff that you might have seen no more than one or two games a year in the past. Now it's possible to see one team use corner blitzes three or four times in a game. All-out blitzes are part of many game plans.

The reason is that while the sumo wrestlers playing in the offensive line may be able to bury an opponent across the line of scrimmage on a running play, they can't cope with a super-quick pass rusher who is much smaller.

That's why Baltimore made Peter Boulware of Florida State the fourth pick in the last draft. Boulware held out until a week before the season opened, but in the final preseason game, with almost no practice time, he ravaged the Bills' protection. That's why Grant Wistrom of Nebraska will be a top-five draft pick next spring and Leonard Little of Tennessee won't be far behind him.

There are only a half dozen top-of-the-shelf offensive lines in the NFL now: Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver, Jacksonville, Minnesota and Tampa Bay. Baltimore is on the verge.

Free agency has ravaged some offensive lines (remember when Will Wolford and Howard Ballard used to make the ground quake as they led the interference on power sweeps in Rich Stadium?). The salary cap depleted almost everyone's depth.

If a team doesn't have a decent offensive line, its quarterback is in jeopardy. Troy Aikman is blitzed off his feet every game now with the Dallas linemen grown old. The Cowboys just lost left tackle Mark Tuinei and their great blocking fullback, Daryl Johnston, and they may be gone forever.

Jim Harbaugh of Indy is abused every game, mostly because rookie Tarik Glenn, scheduled to play left tackle, didn't show up until just before opening day and had to switch positions with rookie right guard Adam Meadows. A kid tackle can't even afford to miss a minicamp these days. The upside of the Colts' problem is that both Glenn and Meadows are improving and next year they should be the starting tackles and stay there for the foreseeable future.

The key to a great offensive line isn't always great talent. Denver's line does not have any All-Pros (onetime star Gary Zimmerman came out of retirement to play right tackle, but he's not the player he once was) yet they play superbly as a unit. Their left guard, Mark Schlereth, has had 13 knee operations. Their center, Tom Nalen, was a seventh-round draft choice. Their right guard, Brian Habib, was drafted in the 10th round as a defensive lineman.

"What they have is experience, a great line coach in Alex Gibbs and cohesion as a unit," says an NFC personnel director. "Those are the three things which make a good line today."

Falcons' sackmeister emerges

Chuck Smith of Atlanta, who recorded five sacks, three forced fumbles, forced a holding penalty and defended a pass against New Orleans last week, did not collect them the cheap way. His opponent was Willie Roaf, one of the NFL's premier offensive tackles.

Smith, a pro since 1992, is no Johnny-come-lately in the big-play department. He came into the game with 32 career sacks, including four this year, putting him among the leaders. He also recorded 11 sacks in 1994. He also had a dozen forced fumbles in his career before last week's prodigious output.

Incidentally, the NFL record for sacks in a game is seven, by Derrick Thomas of Kansas City against Seattle in 1990. Fred Dean of San Francisco sacked the Saints six times in '83 and William Gay of Detroit had 5 1/2 against Tampa Bay the same year. Five others also had five in a game, including Jim Jeffcoat of the Bills, who did it for the Cowboys in '85.

Smith gave the pros an idea of what was coming after finishing his career at Tennessee. He had three sacks in the Senior Bowl that January.

Well-heeled prospects

The War Room, a draftnik newsletter, lists the top 100 college prospects and three of the first seven seniors on the list are North Carolina defensive players -- linebacker Brian Simmons, No. 2; end Greg Ellis, 5; and tackle Vonnie Holliday, 7.

The newsletter also lists Tar Heel middle linebacker Kivuusama Mays at 48 and cornerback Dre Bly No. 7 among underclassmen. Bly, who led the nation in interceptions last year, is a third-year sophomore who reportedly is draft-eligible.

Mamula's stock falls

The Philadelphia Eagles are losing patience with Lackawanna's Mike Mamula, whom they drafted No. 1 in 1995 with the idea of his becoming a top speed pass rusher. Mamula has played in 38 games but in 28 he went sackless.

Coach Ray Rhodes has been defending Mamula, pointing out that he's often double-teamed. But he went one-on-one against Tony Boselli of the Jaguars last week and was an emphatic loser.

Experience preferred

This is how difficult it is to stockpile depth in the NFL: Washington, which leads the NFC East, has three reserve defensive linemen who never made a tackle in an NFL game.<
Felser's Top 10
(Last week's rank in parentheses. NR: Not ranked)
1. Denver . . . Raiders might be tough on road (1)

2. San Francisco . . . Easy schedule (2)

3. New England . . . Tuna today, Pack next week (3)

4. Jacksonville . . . Ground game humming (6)

5. Green Bay . . . Just getting by (4)

6. Minnesota . . . Johnson is a find at quarterback (8)

7. Kansas City . . . Strong at home (9)

8. Tampa Bay . . . Awed by quick ascent (5)

9. Pittsburgh . . . Still many questions (7)

10. Washington . . . Could roll into November (NR)