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BILLS HEAD INTO DRESS REHEARSAL FOR '98 SEASON

The Buffalo Bills have their last chance to tune up for the regular season in tonight's preseason finale against Washington Redskins.

Final preseason games tend to be a matter of both clubs merely trying to get off the field in one piece while putting their greater focus on the following week's season opener.

However, it isn't quite that simple for the new-look Bills, who, like the Redskins, have a 1-2 record this summer.

They enter tonight's home game still trying to gauge their readiness for the real thing. Their offense has had some promising moments, but it also has gone through stretches where it did not appear ready for prime time. Ditto for their special teams and pass defense.

"We're not totally ready," strong safety Henry Jones said. "Last week (the 17-9 victory in Chicago) was a pretty good indicator for us. We got some things ironed out on third down (pass coverage), and I'm sure the offense has some things they need to iron out. We've just got to keep working."

"This should be a time when you're at your peak, when your conditioning level is at its peak, and your reads and everything else we went through in training camp should be at their peak," defensive end Phil Hansen said. "And that's something you show on the field (tonight)."

Or not.

Hansen said he expected the Bills to have their football house in order by their Sept. 6 opener in San Diego, although he did add that he's "always optimistic."

Still, Hansen acknowledges there are areas in which the Bills need honing. He would have liked for fellow defensive end Bruce Smith to play tonight, so the two of them could work on timing on certain pass-rushing stunts. However, the All-Pro is being held out.

"You see it on (practice) film that Bruce is a little rusty yet because he hasn't gone through any training camp," Hansen said.

The Bills' defense also needs to work on tightening its pass coverage. Despite the absence of Smith's pass-rushing and a specific game plan, the coaches and players are disappointed with most of what the team has done against the pass this summer, especially on third down.

"You want to play the pass coverage to the best of your ability, and if a guy's running open, there's a problem and it needs to be fixed immediately," Jones said. "Our concern is that our percentage on third down (40 percent in the preseason) needs to go down some more. The percentage is a little higher than we'd like it, and that's something we can iron out in the next week or so before we get to San Diego."

Johnson and the Bills' offense had their best overall showing of the summer against the Bears. They put together some longer drives that displayed good balance, and also made some big plays.

But Johnson, who is not expected to play any more than a half tonight, does not put a great deal of stock in the idea that it is imperative for him to play his best in the preseason finale in order to perform the same in the regular-season opener.

"Actually, the last preseason, I had my worst game in the last game," Johnson said, referring to a poor preseason finale he had with Jacksonville against the Atlanta Falcons. The following week, starting in place of injured Mark Brunell, he had a career-making outing against Baltimore.

"If you look at the preseason, you get a quarter or a half, and it's hit or miss for a lot of guys," said Johnson, who has completed 24 of 37 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, this preseason. "There's so much stuff that can happen in the NFL, the way they cover (a pass), or you get a play where it's not there and you have to throw it away. You can look bad or you can look good.

"I'm just going to go out and try to do my best. I'm not thinking that if I don't play great that I'm not going to have a good season."

To this point, the Bills see one preseason game -- their 12-7 home loss to Carolina on Aug. 14 -- as the only real low point.

"Carolina might not have been a step forward," Hansen said. "But (the preseason opener in) Pittsburgh was a good step and Chicago was a good step.

"It would be very advantageous for our team to show well, both offensively and defensively, (tonight). As for just trying to stay healthy for the season, I want to come out of every game healthy, but that will take care of itself. You don't play not trying to get hurt."
Newly acquired kickoff specialist Cole Ford, acquired off waivers from Oakland, is expected to make his Bills debut tonight. The game will likely be his lone chance to convince the team's decision-makers that he should be kept on the final 53-man roster in addition to regular kicker Steve Christie.

Buffalo players who are on the bubble and hoping to make a last-ditch attempt to remain on the team tonight are linebackers Joe Cummings and Dwayne Sabb, defensive tackle James Grier, center Dan Williams, offensive tackle David Mudge, offensive guard Victor Allotey and wide receiver Fred Coleman.

Rookie fullback Clarence "Pooh Bear" Williams and veteran running back Darick Holmes are competing for what could be a fifth spot in the backfield, although both could end up sticking.
Offensive coordinator Joe Pendry will coach tonight's game from the sidelines, rather than the coaches' box, which was where he worked in two of the first three games of the preseason.

Johnson said having Pendry at field level makes it easier to receive the plays he signals to the quarterback. From the coaches' box, Pendry relays each call to the sideline, and then they are relayed to the field.

Tonight's game will have opposing players who are also business partners. Bills running back Thurman Thomas and Redskins cornerback Cris Dishman are part of a group of current and former NFL players that owns a Houston restaurant called Copeland's of New Orleans, specializing in Cajun seafood. Thomas is from Houston and lives there in the offseason.
Fan attending tonight's game will receive a magnetic Bills schedule.

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