Buffalo Bills coach Mike Mularkey has several key decisions awaiting him in the coming weeks, and not all revolve around quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe and J.P. Losman. Nine games into the season, Mularkey is still looking for answers at free safety.
Mularkey benched veteran starter Izell Reese in the first half of the Bills' 29-6 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday and replaced him with rookie Rashad Baker.
Mularkey had not determined Monday whether Baker will be in the starting lineup this weekend against the St. Louis Rams.
"We're looking at all the options," Mularkey said. "We're still weighing what went on (Sunday) night. We made a change and put Rashad back there. You have plusses and minuses at any position. There's another one. We have to weigh them all and see what the best solution is."
Baker is an undrafted free agent from Tennessee who had been mostly used in obvious passing situations. He was inserted into the Bills' first defense Sunday after Reese was caught with his back turned on Tom Brady's 47-yard pass to Bethel Johnson that hung up in the air.
Baker said he became more comfortable and confident with every series against the Pats. He was caught out of position on David Patten's touchdown catch but otherwise played well. He was flagged for a 43-yard interference penalty on a pass to Patten in which it appeared Baker made a textbook defensive play. If nothing else, he was given an opportunity to take over the starting job.
"Yes, that went through my mind," Baker said. "When I got in there, I just thought about making plays and not make any mistakes. As the game went on, I got comfortable. I felt myself getting into position to make those plays."
Mularkey's decision about who will start could hinge on cornerback Troy Vincent's health. Vincent has been recovering from a knee injury, and there has been speculation he will move to free safety when he returns.
Vincent did not know whether he would be available against the Rams. Mularkey also hasn't ruled out putting Reese back into the starting lineup Sunday.
"I don't know if we have to do it on Monday," Mularkey said. "We'll look at the options through the week and take the best one at the end."
Ross Tucker started the Pats game at left guard but shared playing time with Lawrence Smith. Tucker started at center for four games when Trey Teague was sidelined with a broken leg and switched to guard against the New York Jets.
Tucker is a good run blocker, but Smith might be a better pass blocker. Tucker received more playing time early in the game. Smith had more snaps later, when the Bills were in a deep hole and forced into the passing game. Mularkey was looking for ways to best utilize both linemen.
"Each guy does one thing better," Mularkey said. "Depending on the situation or even by how we play in the quarter, we're just giving them an opportunity. They're both in my mind starters on the offensive line."
What's in a name, so long as he returns punts for touchdowns?
That Smith guy you saw wearing No. 19 and streaking through the Patriots' coverage team is named Jonathan Dewayne Smith, but his teammates call him "Freddie." He told the Bills' public relations staff to refer to him as Jonathan in the media guide and news releases, but he has "F. Smith" on his jersey.
Apparently, "Freddie" is a derivative of "Fast Freddie," a nickname he picked up when he was younger. Smith prefers Jonathan.
The Bills' defense slipped from third to fifth in the NFL after allowing 428 yards to the Patriots, 60 more than Buffalo's average going into the game.
The offense dropped one spot to 28th after producing 125 yards, less than half of its average in the first eight games.
The Bills have scored 143 points in nine games. Washington (125) and Miami (123) are the only teams with fewer.
Single tickets remain on sale for the game Sunday against the Rams. The Bills have sold out four of their five home games this season. The exception was Arizona. . . . The Bills had no serious injuries to report after the New England game. . . . Strong safety Coy Wire (abdomen) is expected to practice today.