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COWART-LESS DEFENSE FACES HUGE TEST IN JAMES

It would be nice if the Buffalo Bills' defense could ease into "Life Without Sam Cowart."

It would be nice if in its first game without the Pro Bowl linebacker the defense could face some middle-of-the-road running back with only ordinary speed. Or a team that is wrestling with a running-backs-by-committee approach.

No such luck.

The Bills' defense may get a good idea of just how much it misses Cowart when it tries to stop Indianapolis' star running back Edgerrin James on Sunday at the RCA Dome.

James has won the NFL rushing title in each of his two seasons in the NFL and is the second-best rushing-and-receiving threat in the league behind St. Louis' Marshall Faulk. And he opened the 2001 season with a blast - gaining 135 yards in the Colts' rout of the New York Jets.

"We have to be great tacklers this week," said Cowart's replacement in the starting lineup, Kenyatta Wright. "Edgerrin James breaks a lot of tackles. He gets a lot of yards after the initial contact, and he did that against the Jets last week. We've got to get him on the ground."

The pressure is on Wright, but he's not alone, because there's no one on the Bills' defense capable of filling Cowart's shoes. Cowart was the key man in the middle of all 13 of the Bills' defensive schemes. The Bills will be using numerous players in Cowart's roles.

Wright, the second-year former undrafted free agent, gets the call in the base 4-3 defense. But the linebackers who take Cowart's spots in the nickel and dime defenses are just as important because of James' great ability to catch passes out of the backfield.

It appears strong-side backer Keith Newman will get the call as the lone linebacker when the Bills use six defensive backs (the dime defense) in passing situations.

Wright was working Wednesday in Cowart's spot in the five-DB (nickel) alignment, although Jay Foreman worked there last week.

Cowart was huge in the dime defense last year because of his speed and sure tackling. On third-and-long situations last year, Cowart made countless stops on running backs just a yard or two short of the first-down marker to get the defense off the field. (The Bills ranked 14th on third-down defense last year. Gregg Williams' Tennessee defense was first.)

Newman saw almost no action as the dime backer in training camp or preseason. Foreman worked with the second dime unit and Wright with the third. But the Bills have worked him in the last two weeks and love his play-making ability.

"We've got a guy in there who has the attitude of Sam Cowart," defensive coordinator Jerry Gray said. "He doesn't have the ability (of Cowart) but one thing that takes you a long way is attitude. I like Keith's attitude. Anybody who runs up in the middle, Keith is going to knock you out. And if he's on the outside rushing, he's going to run over a tackle."

Newman was second on the Bills with eight sacks last year.

"Keith actually gives us more versatility in a way than Sam because he can rush the passer and cover, where Sam is more of a cover guy," Gray said. "I think those guys have to be worried about Keith.

"You've got six DBs back there. Now you can send Keith (to rush the passer). We've got DBs in the game. We can cover Edgerrin with DBs if we execute properly. Can they block Keith when we send four other guys?"

The jury is way out on the Bills' run defense, which looked great in the first half against New Orleans but wore down in the second half.

"We've got seven other guys (besides the middle linebacker) who are going to be on the line of scrimmage," said Gray when asked about stopping James. "We've got to make sure Edgerrin is not going to be the focal point. We know he got his yards last week. We've got to make him earn it. We can't do what we did the second half last week against New Orleans. We had held Ricky (Williams) and then all of a sudden the wheels come off. We have to play for 60 minutes."

Indeed. James has rushed for 100 yards or more in 20 of his 33 career games. He has 3,397 rushing yards - 1,520 in the first half, 1,877 in the second half.

Rookie Brandon Spoon now is Wright's backup at middle linebacker. He was inactive last week but is expected to spell Wright at least on a few plays Sunday. Wright remains on all of the Bills' key special teams units, so he may need a breather at times.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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