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FLETCHER'S PLAY GETS A THUMBS UP
BILLS LINEBACKER KNOWN FOR STUDYING FILM ON FOES

Players wandering the halls of the Buffalo Bills' training complex aren't likely to find middle linebacker London Fletcher perfecting his Xbox moves.

"He watches so much film," said Fletcher's backup, Angelo Crowell. "When there's free time, you see some guys talk to friends or play video games, and I'll walk into the linebacker room and he's there watching film. There's a direct correlation to what happens on the field and how much time he spends off it."

Fletcher is as driven to succeed as any player on the Bills, a big reason why he is one of the most productive players for a third year in a row.

Fletcher leads the Bills with 97 tackles, 30 more than runner-up Takeo Spikes. He's on pace for 172 for the season, which would surpass his team-high total of 158 last year.

Bills linebackers coach Don Blackmon said more familiarity with the defense this year has made Fletcher better.

"London to me is a true professional," Blackmon said. "His focus this year has been better for me than it was last year. Last year, we changed a lot of things over as far as the scheme was concerned. It took us awhile to gather some momentum. When we came back this year, all the players had a more confident sense about them. Right now I think London's in a pretty good rhythm. He's feeling good, and I think the production is up."

The rhythm of Fletcher and the Bills' defenders will be put to a severe test Sunday against the St. Louis Rams. St. Louis brings the NFL's sixth-ranked offense to Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The matchup has an added dimension for Fletcher because he spent his first four years with the Rams. St. Louis, which let Fletcher go partly because of salary cap constraints, has yet to adequately replace him.

"No question we miss London," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "He was such a good leader on this team, and so productive. You go back and look at the years that he was here. He's hard to replace.

"It breaks my heart that he's not here, it does."

Fletcher was not talking about his old mates this week. He has only done a few interviews this season because he prefers to keep a low profile in the media.

He does not keep a low profile on the field. The Bills ask a lot of their defensive captain. Unlike most middle linebackers, Fletcher is on the field every down. Besides playing run defense, Fletcher often finds himself 25 yards downfield in pass coverage. The Bills have blitzed with him more this year, too. He has 2.5 sacks.

"As the mike linebacker he's the quarterback out there on the field," Blackmon said. "We put a lot of pressure on him to make a lot of calls and to get things communicated on the line of scrimmage."

"That's one reason he watches so much film," Crowell said. "He knows he has to make all the checks, line everybody up. He has to see everything. We might have double calls, which means we might have two different coverages called. If they line up in one formation, we're playing one coverage. If they line up in a different formation, we're playing another coverage. If he misses a check, it messes the defense up."

"Most of the time he knows what plays are going to be run before they're run because of the formation and sets and who's in the game," said linebacker Josh Stamer. "Or at least he knows the three or four options that could happen on a play. That makes him an amazing player. On the field he's so much faster because there's no indecision in his game. He knows what's coming. When he sees it he goes and there's no turning back."

Fletcher's intensity caused him some problems earlier in the season. He was penalized 5 yards for kicking a dead ball in the opener against Jacksonville, which helped the Jaguars on their final, game-winning drive. He also got called for three roughing or personal foul penalties in the first six weeks.

"We've talked a little bit about it," Blackmon said. "There's been some questionable ones in my mind. I'm looking at it as he's one step away. But we've addressed it. He's playing with great intensity."

Fletcher is so intense, the coaches have to force him to take a play off in practice.

"Last year, I couldn't get my younger guys reps in practice because London and Takeo would never come off the field," Blackmon said. "They wanted every snap. This year I told them, 'You're putting too much on your legs.' They're coming off this year. But that's the kind of professionals I'm dealing with."

It was the same in St. Louis, Martz said.

"If guys didn't practice at a certain level, he was right there in his face," Martz said. "He demanded it out of everybody, that everybody practiced like he did. There was no question, you lose somebody like London, that's going to affect you."

It's all about drive with Fletcher. He had to fight his way into the NFL as a small-college product (John Carroll). He didn't get drafted. He had to overcome the perception he was undersized at 5-foot-10.

"There's no question that's still in the back of his mind," Blackmon said.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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