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BANGED-UP BILLS' OFFENSE STEELS ITSELF FOR PITTSBURGH

The Buffalo Bills face a less daunting assignment today as they aim for their first win of the season.

The question as they take the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers is: Are they in any kind of shape to take advantage of it?

The Steelers are a notch below the caliber of the Bills' first two opponents -- New Orleans and Indianapolis -- so there is a legitimate opportunity for the Bills to rebound from their 0-2 start before a flag-waving, sellout crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

But the Bills' new offense, which is still trying to find its bearings, enters the game hobbling, and the Steelers' defense is better than a lot of people realize.

"Obviously, this week we face a much better defense (than in Indianapolis)," said Bills quarterback Rob Johnson. "They've had a couple weeks to prepare for us, and we have to play better."

Receiver Eric Moulds is expected to try to play despite a sore shoulder and sternum, but he won't be 100 percent. And the Bills are really banged up at tackle. Rookie right tackle Jonas Jennings probably won't be able to play due to a sore hip. Left tackle John Fina has a sore knee and thigh, and it will be an upset if he can go for any significant stretch of the game.

That means Kris Farris and rookie Marques Sullivan, who have one NFL O-line appearance combined, are likely to be the tackle tandem for much if not all of the game. As insurance, the Bills activated tackle Jon Carman off the practice squad Saturday.

Count on the Bills giving Farris and Sullivan a considerable amount of blocking help when it's time to pass.

The Steelers' defense ranked seventh in the NFL last year and was respectable in its opening loss at Jacksonville, despite the 21-3 result. The Steelers' two outside linebackers, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter, will be a handful for whoever lines up at tackle. Gildon had 13 1/2 sacks last year, Porter 10 1/2 .

The Bills' West Coast offense made progress in the 42-26 loss at Indy last week.

"The Colts have such a good offense, they play soft on defense and try to keep everything in front of them," Johnson said. "Pittsburgh is a lot more aggressive. They blitz a lot more. They zone blitz. They don't all-out blitz and gamble, but they bring guys from different areas and move guys around all the time. It makes the offensive line's job and my job a lot tougher."

Johnson is going to have to know where to go with the ball quickly.

It will be interesting to see how the Steelers defense the Bills' running game. Will they bring a safety up to help support the run and not worry too much about Johnson having the time to beat them deep? Or will they be confident in bottling up the run more honestly and play deep coverage to bottle up the pass, too?

And are the Bills capable of coming up with an answer for any defense at this early point in the season?

"I don't think a lot of teams have respect for our run game, especially from last year," Johnson said. "We haven't proved we can consistently run the football. Until you do that, you're not going to get eight guys in the box. Against Jacksonville with Fred Taylor in there, they stopped him but they had to commit eight guys. I think we'll get to that point. I think Travis (Henry) is an excellent runner and our O-line is doing a much better job (run blocking).

"But if we don't have Eric in there, I do think we'll see more eight guys in the box because they're not worried about getting beat with the home run."

The Steelers have a solid cornerback tandem -- Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington -- that ranks in the top half of the league. Their front seven is far from the Steel Curtain. But inside linebacker Earl Holmes, who shifted to the run-plugging spot of departed veteran Levon Kirkland, is one of the best linebackers in the AFC, a real underrated force. Their top draft choice, Casey Hampton, plays the nose tackle in their 3-4 defense.

"We like to think we have good team speed on defense," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "We have some smart players and try to do different things schematically and try to bring different combinations of people with blitzes."

Against the 3-4, it's a bit harder for the offense to recognize which four or five defenders are rushing the passer and which linemen are dropping off in pass coverage (that's a zone blitz).

"Pittsburgh does as good a job as anybody in the league at disguising what their true intentions are until the very last second right before the snap of the ball," Bills quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "One of the theories in attacking the zone blitz is that you run right at it. Because now the defensive linemen who are responsible for pass coverage are also responsible for their run gap, so maybe you catch them on their heels a little bit thinking pass."

Of course, running at the zone blitz is no good if you're in third-and-long situations all day.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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