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SAFETY NET HAS SNAGS FOR BILLS

The "uh-oh plays" have been stinging the Buffalo Bills' defense.

They happen when one of the team's young safeties gets fooled, realizes a split-second too late and is left to say "uh-oh" as the opposing offense makes a big gain.

It is no surprise three-quarters of the way through the season that Coy Wire and Pierson Prioleau are suffering through growing pains.

Both are first-year starters, and safety is a position in which experience is especially critical because both so often are in the middle of the action.

The Bills' brain trust loves the talent both Prioleau and Wire show. It likes Prioleau so much it signed him in September to a contract extension through 2005. It made Wire a third-round draft choice, and he continues to hold off veteran Billy Jenkins in the starting lineup.

But it's apparent they aren't ready to be big-play, error-free anchors in the defensive secondary.

"They're both very tough," said coach Gregg Williams. "They're both strong, tough competitors, good tacklers and they have improved throughout the year. We'll have some growing pains. We have had growing pains all year long in certain parts of the defense."

One of those uh-oh plays came at a key moment in the Bills' loss to the Jets, when New York receiver Laveranues Coles got wide-open for an 11-yard touchdown pass that made the score 24-3.

It was a second-and-6 play, and the Jets sent two receivers toward the right sideline, covered by Antoine Winfield and Eddie Robinson. Wire was behind them, supporting in coverage. Coles lined up to the left, opposite Nate Clements, and Prioleau was supporting Clements' side.

The Jets' Chad Pennington made a good play-action fake to Jets running back Curtis Martin then rolled to the right. Prioleau and Clements were in 100 percent pass coverage, without run-support responsibility. They essentially were double-covering Coles. But they bought the play-fake and ran hard toward the line of scrimmage at Martin. Coles crossed the end zone unescorted and scored easily.

"You definitely set up the play-action offense with good running," Prioleau said. "You more often tend to jump up on the run when the team is really running well. If it's your job to stop the run, then stop the run. But if it's your job to be in pass coverage, then you have to be disciplined and stay back and cover guys."

"Offenses have been running these plays for years and they get young guys and they get old guys," said Bills safeties coach Steve Jackson. "That's why they run them, because they work. If you see a DB in the league who's never been beat, he isn't getting in the game. These guys make more than their share of plays. But at that position, every mistake is magnified."

The safeties have a bit more difficult assignment in the Bills' defense, because the team plays more man-to-man coverage than many teams. Wire, especially, is called upon to help support the run at the line of scrimmage. It's not as easy to get exposed when you're playing deep center field.

Wire is making the difficult transition from college linebacker to NFL coverage guy. He works extra on his coverage technique with Jackson on the field after almost every practice. He has made some good hits in run support. He also has had rough moments, such as the New England game three weeks ago.

He missed a tackle on a screen pass that tight end Daniel Graham took 22 yards to set up a TD. He missed a tackle at the line of scrimmage on a 17-yard Antowain Smith run that led to a field goal.

Of course, if the Bills were sturdier in their front seven, some of these miscues would not look so costly. And they wouldn't need the safety help in the run front as much.

Conversely, Bills defensive coordinator Jerry Gray has not used as many complicated calls as he did when he had a veteran safety tandem of Blaine Bishop and Damien Robinson in Tennessee. The Bills have called few all-out blitzes the past month.

"Prioleau has the most experience with us and the scheme, and he just came here the last seven games of last year," Jackson said. "Coy played linebacker in college and he's just now learning how to play DB. For all the 'little' big plays you really don't see on TV, they may have one or two plays (that stick out) every week. But they do much more positive definitely than they do negatively."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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