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NORTHERN HEARD IN LOCKER ROOM AND ON THE FIELD

Gabe Northern has never been known as a quiet guy. Walk into the Buffalo Bills' locker room, and chance are good his voice will be heard.

But the fourth-year outside linebacker has been more than just talk on the football field. Northern has 43 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks in his second year as a starter on the weak side. He also has seven tackles on special teams.

Northern has been more than just a solid tackler. He's become a guy with a knack for making big plays.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles, Northern set up a touchdown when he stripped quarterback Doug Pederson of the ball. His 59-yard return of a recovered fumble helped the Bills to a 23-18 win at Miami. In the Bills' 13-10 comeback win at Baltimore, he set up Buffalo's last 10 points causing an interception and forcing quarterback Tony Banks to fumble in the fourth quarter.

"He's made some big plays for us with fumble recoveries, forced fumbles and sacks," defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said. "A lot of guys are right there in position to make a play, but don't. Gabe has a knack for being there, then getting an arm out and knocking the ball away. When he picks up a fumble, he can run with it. He's having a good year."

Northern thinks this is his best year, but he isn't satisfied. He is still searching for the consistency that makes good linebackers great ones.

Through the first nine games, Northern led the Bills with three sacks and was tied for the team lead with two forced fumbles. Over the last four contests, he has just 11 tackles and a half of a sack. "It's my best year, but I should be better," said Northern. "I still have some stuff to work on, whether it's rushing the passer, stopping the run or getting off blocks. I'm just trying to be a better linebacker every practice, every game, every day."

Northern had a good rookie year in 1996, making five sacks and blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown against the Eagles. But his play slipped the next two seasons as he totaled just two sacks. On special teams, he has 31 tackles over two years combined after making 23 as a rookie.

Northern's critics were many after last season, his first as a full-time starter. They expected more from a guy who showed so much promise in his first year.

Northern doesn't think he was a victim of his early success. He believes it had more to do with adjusting to the way the Bills played defense. "We were a 3-4 team mostly my rookie year," said Northern, a defensive end in college at LSU. "Then we came back my second and third year and played some 4-3, so that was a little different. I'd never played the 4-3 like it's supposed to be played until I got here, so that was something else I had to learn. And then we went back to the 3-4.

"I don't want it to seem like I'm making excuses, but I had never played linebacker the correct way and I was still learning it when I got here. Now, I'm still learning to be the best linebacker I can be in whatever scheme."

Cottrell agrees that Northern is still making the transition to playing outside linebacker at the NFL level.

"It's tough because a lot of things are happening real fast," Cottrell said. "Being on the open side, he has a lot of ground to cover. Plus he's rushing the passer, defending the run against some big guys and trying to learn pass coverages, which isn't easy for a guy who used to be a defensive end. He's got a tough job.

"But I think Gabe's coming along well. He's got good leverage and he uses his hands well. He does a good job of controlling the blocker. We're still trying to get him to shed blocks a little quicker. Once he does that, I know that will help him make even more plays."

The more plays Northern makes, the better for the Bills. It also could make him a lot of money.

Northern is in the final year of his contract, which means he'll be an unrestricted free agent. It will be interesting to see if the Bills think he's worth the kind of big money his current and former teammates have received.

Strong side outside linebacker Bryce Paup left Buffalo for a five-year, $22 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Sam Rogers, who moved into Paup's spot last year, got $14 million over four years from the Bills in 1998.

Northern would prefer to remain in Buffalo. He has become very active in the community, taking part in an anti-smoking campaign sponsored by the New York State Department of Health and doing some work with Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He's also involved with several other local charities.

However, contract negotiations can be a difficult process. As much as Northern would like to stay with the Bills, he knows the outcome may be out of his control.

"That free agency stuff can get crazy not knowing where I'll be next year," he said. "It gives me something to think about as far as my family and the possibility of having to move. But I try not to worry about that right now. I just have to go out and do what I can while I have a chance here."
Victor Allotey, Bill Conaty, Kamil Loud and Joe Panos are the Bills' early inactives. Tackle Robert Hicks (ankle) and running back Antowain Smith (toe) expect to play against New England, although both could be a game-time decision.

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