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IT'S EARLY, BUT THE BILLS' DEFINING MOMENT ALREADY HAS ARRIVED

No one is talking about "desperation" and "urgency." It's too soon for that. They've played only one game. And at a time like this, it's probably unwise to describe a football team in such severe tones.

Let's just say there's a sense of unease about the Buffalo Bills, and particularly their offense, heading into today's game against the Colts. The first offense has scored one touchdown since the start of preseason. Rob Johnson has not looked good, and the coaches have begun voicing concern.

Everyone around the team concedes that the time for talk is over. It's time for the West Coast offense to fulfill its promise; time for the playmakers to make big plays; time to score touchdowns and take the load off a young defense that will have its hands full today.

The offense needs a jolt of confidence, and it needs it now. Everyone, from the front office to the coaches to the players, is eager to see the West Coast attack function at a reasonably high level, to establish a sense of belief.

"We need it," said left guard Ruben Brown. "I mean, I need it. I need to know we're moving in the right direction. I've got to see it. I think we're doing the right things in practice. It's just time for us to go out there when the lights are on and actually do it. We've got too many weapons to be struggling in the red zone.

"I think it's a serious challenge, for us to rise up and start scoring points."

The challenge, as always, is there for Johnson. During the past week, there was a perceptible shift in the coaches' public posture toward their QB. Mike Sheppard, the offensive coordinator, said the team needed to get its "throwing game" in order. In a conference call with the Colts media, head coach Gregg Williams took off the kid gloves and criticized Johnson for holding the ball too long.

Williams was glowing in his praise of Indy's quarterback, Peyton Manning. He talked about Manning's ability to control a game, to make checks at the line of scrimmage, to withstand the pass rush, to get the ball off quickly. He said Manning had that "inner clock" that a great quarterback needs.

He seemed, in short, to be listing the qualities Johnson lacks -- holding up Manning as the antithesis of Johnson, the player he needs to emulate. The organization knows Johnson has a lot to prove. They're no more certain that he'll succeed than the average fan.

"We've definitely got to score more points," Johnson said. "Offensively, we've got to get on track and help our defense out."

The Colts have an average defense. There's no excuse if the Bills don't move the ball and score at least a couple of touchdowns. You can run on them. The Jets averaged 4.8 yards a carry last week. They scored 24 points and were a yard away from a fourth TD when they turned the ball over late.

"Their defense is good," Brown said. "They play well as a unit, and that's the most dangerous thing. We have to go in and focus. We can't go in and think they're not New Orleans, they're not Miami, they're not this or that. Let me tell you, I've been playing (tackle) Ellis Johnson for seven years. He's no pushover. None of those guys are. We went down there Monday night last year and they walked the dog on us."

The Colts sacked Johnson 12 times in their two wins over the Bills a year ago. They dropped him eight times and knocked him out of the game in a 44-20 debacle on Monday night in December. More than 30 percent of their sacks came against Buffalo in 2000.

So they'll be coming. The word is out in the NFL. You beat the Bills by going after Johnson and putting pressure on him. We're not the only ones wondering if the West Coast offense is a good fit for him. The experts are saying it, too.

The Bills have playmakers. They have a developing running game with rookie Travis Henry. If Henry keeps the defense honest, Johnson will have open receivers. It's up to him to find them. Eric Moulds and Peerless Price were complaining after one game. The whining will only get worse, and the critics more insistent, if they don't get it together soon.

"I think it's early enough in the season to establish what we do best," said fullback Larry Centers. "If we go out and have some success, we define what we do best."

That cuts both ways, of course. If they don't have success, they'll define themselves as an offense in crisis.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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