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THE DEVIL'S IN THE DEFENSE, BUT THERE'S TIME TO FIX WHAT'S BROKEN

The futility of the Bills' running game is a major reason they are picking up the pieces after only one game rather than piecing together the rest of what looked like a legitimate shot at postseason glory just a short time ago.

It is a serious problem that might not be solved in the near future.

But it doesn't begin to tell the whole story of why the Bills were so thoroughly embarrassed by the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. Overlooked in the fury over Antowain Smith hitting the ground almost the instant he touched the ball and over Doug Flutie's two interceptions is the fact the Bills' defense was far more responsible for the 31-14 loss than their offense.

The Colts won on the strength of a big-play passing game. That occurred because Peyton Manning had way too much time to make throws, and Marvin Harrison and E.G. Green had way too much room to make catches.

I know that Wade Phillips gave high praise to his pass rush Monday. I know he said the Bills generated some of the best pressure he had seen since he arrived in Buffalo in 1995.

But that wasn't the same game I saw.

Not only did the Bills fail to sack Manning, but they also did hardly anything to make his life miserable in the pocket. What I saw, time and again, was the lanky Colts' QB dropping back, faking a handoff, setting his feet and firing perfect strike after perfect strike.

This kid had all of 16 NFL games under his belt, yet operated with the comfort and coolness of a 10-year veteran because the Bills allowed him to.

The only quarterback who saw a pass rush worthy of high praise was Flutie. The Colts had him running for his life virtually the entire game. They showed all sorts of creativity with a zone-blitz scheme that had Flutie trying to outrun cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers who came from all directions.

And when blitzers weren't streaking free and clear into the backfield, defensive linemen such as Chad Bratzke (who had three of the Colts' five sacks) and Ellis Johnson were either blowing around the outside or through the middle of the Bills' offensive line.

Now that's great pressure!

It is also the kind of pressure the Bills should be capable of generating on a consistent basis.

Defense is supposed to be the strength of this team. It is supposed to be the foundation on which a Super Bowl run is to be built. And in a pass-happy division such as the AFC East, harassing quarterbacks and getting sacks are what separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Even with their pathetic running game, the Bills can be a contender.

As poorly as they ran the ball and as often as Flutie had to run around and make things happen on the fly, the offense and outstanding special-teams play kept them in the game until the final few minutes. As long as Flutie, Eric Moulds and Peerless Price stay healthy, the Bills will score points and stay competitive.

What they need is for their defense to show up on third down as well as it does against the run. It was the same thing they needed last year.

Given that the Bills didn't use free agency to upgrade their secondary or pass rush, it is incumbent upon Phillips and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell to get more out of the players they have. But they won't do that with a scheme that was as basic and passive as the one they used Sunday.

The Colts weren't just being boastful when they said afterward that they knew what to expect from the Bills' defense long before the opening kickoff. That was a fact. Even when the Bills blitzed, they were conventional, usually sending linebacker John Holecek up the middle, and occasionally Gabe Northern, Sam Rogers, Henry Jones or Manny Martin from the outside.

Most of the time, the Colts were able to pick up blitzers in the backfield or hold their blocks at the line long enough for Manning to throw undisturbed.

The Bills have much more in their blitz package that they could use. I have a strong suspicion we will begin to see it this weekend against the Jets and Rick Mirer, New York's starting quarterback now that Vinny Testaverde has been lost for the season. The poor job Mirer does of reading blitzes is among the many weaknesses that have caused him to become an NFL vagabond since he was drafted by Seattle as the No. 2 overall pick in 1993.

The Bills can and should do more attacking with their defensive backs and linebackers. When the Jets try to use their patented spread offense and leave the backfield empty, the Bills should not be afraid to send blitzers after Mirer from all directions. They should also run more stunts, or perhaps move Bruce Smith over the Jets' unproven guards -- Kerry Jenkins and Randy Thomas. That could make either player, who already will be struggling to hear over the roar of a sellout home-opening crowd, jittery enough to jump offside.

It is time for the defense to take control of this team's fortunes -- to be proactive, not reactive.

As we discovered during last season's 0-3 start, it usually takes a slap to the face for the Bills to wake up and do the things they should have been doing in the first place.

The Colts gave them a good one Sunday.

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