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Safety patrol Milloy and Vincent give Bills a feeling of security by anchoring their last line of defense

Lawyer Milloy wanted to get something straight, or at least so it seemed, heading into last Sunday's season opener against Houston. So he asked Jerry Gray, the Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator, to have defensive captain London Fletcher reacquaint the unit with the hand signals used when crowd noise complicates on-field communications.

Fletcher spent 10 minutes going over the signs, the signs Milloy had requested he review, and then here's what happened against the Texans:

"One time on Sunday, think it was in the third quarter, crowd got a little rowdy, Lawyer didn't hear the huddle call," said Troy Vincent.

"He mouths 'What's the call?' I give him the hand signal.

'What's the call?' I give him the hand signal again.

'What's the call?' I give him the hand signal for the third time. We get off the field, guess what he said? 'Don't you ever give me a hand signal again. Tell me verbally. I don't like hand signals.' "

A less secure player than Vincent might have taken offense. Don't blame me. It was your idea. But Vincent, unwavering in his self-confidence, merely wrote it off as another example of Milloy's acute single-mindedness, his prolific intensity, no slight intended and none taken.

"A lot of times he's so engaged in what's going on, he's ready to remove someone's head from their shoulders," Vincent said. "But I can appreciate that, because I'll tell you what. That's the kind of guy I want to be in a foxhole with on any given day, not just Sunday. You can count on him, you can trust him and he can bring it."

They're fire and ice, these two players ostensibly en route to becoming the most feared safety tandem in the history of the franchise. Or, as Milloy might prefer it be phrased, he's the assassin, the strong safety sacrificing his body in run support, and Vincent's the floor sweeper, the free safety tidying up whatever's left behind.

"If we need some dirty work to be done, I'll do the dirty work," Milloy said after Sunday's 22-7 win over Houston. "We're going to keep him pretty so he can be back there making the plays."

Milloy and Vincent will go at it all day if they're allowed. A jab here, a roundhouse there, throwing barbs at one another until the bell rings and they're sent to separate corners. And the thing to be taken from these incessant tongue-in-cheek attacks between these two players -- other than that their mutual respect runs rampant -- is that their regard for each other, for what they've accomplished and for what they still offer, fuels their professional competitiveness.

"I just think the success we both had in our former places prior to coming here . . . says a whole lot," Vincent said. "Because now we're able to come, set aside our egos, and do what's best to be the best pair and be the best safeties for this football team."

They've played only five games together in the Bills' secondary, but already Vincent and Milloy are drawing favorable comparisons to the top safety tandems of franchise lore. George Saimes, the lone safety on the Wall of Fame, was the foundation in the '60s, teaming with Tommy Janik on the American Football League champion team of '65. The pairing of Steve Freeman and Tony Green had a solid run during the late '70s. Mark Kelso and Leonard Smith flourished during two of the Super Bowl years. What might separate Milloy and Vincent from the pack is that both possess size, speed and razor-sharp instincts.

"They're great players, have been great players for a long time," said the quarterback they'll face today, Tampa Bay's Brian Griese. "There's no doubt about that. They make plays, and that's the reason they've been around for so long. Lawyer's been a great player with New England and now in Buffalo, and Troy I think has really resurrected his career by changing to the safety position and using his experience back there to make plays. You have to be careful with those guys."

"With Milloy and Troy Vincent and the corners they have to go with this front seven, they're dangerous," added Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden.

Milloy, 31, has been to four Pro Bowls and anchored the secondary during New England's 2001 Super Bowl season. Vincent, 34, is a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback who began making the transition to safety when he returned from a knee injury to play the final four games of last season. He debuted at the position with three tackles, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery in a victory over Cleveland. Call it instant chemistry.

"In practice there's very few words being interchanged between us, and that's always a good sign because we're on the same page," Milloy said. "That's a bonus to know you can control your side of the ball, control what you do and not have to worry about, is the other safety getting it right?"

This new pairing, this wealth of experience, further liberates Nate Clements, the playmaking cornerback who craves life on the edge.

"It's definitely important for a corner," Clements said. "I always play with freedom. I guess it's like when you know your girlfriend loves you, but it's always good to hear her tell you. I always play with freedom, but with that reassurance, it just allows me to play with more confidence and play my style of football."

Vincent says he still has a lot to learn at his new position. Milloy, hearing this, says his partner is "politicking." Vincent, hearing this, smiles and throws an uppercut.

"Two-thousand-five, I want to be the best safety in the game," he said.

Better than Milloy?

"Oh, yeah. Much better," Vincent said. "When you say better, it's not like me and him are competing. I'm a little more versatile. I can cover the wideouts, backs, I can pretty much do it all on the back end. I don't care for all the contact Lawyer has, as much as they put him in the box. You put us both on the stool, I think I'll get the nod."

All the gamesmanship aside, it's obvious Milloy and Vincent sense they're on to something special, that it's serendipitous they've come together at this point of their careers.

"I won a Super Bowl with Tebucky Jones," Milloy said. "He was a corner-slash-safety kind of guy. Sometimes it takes a couple years. In his case it did. And sometimes it's just a natural fit, and I think that's what it is with Troy.

"I've lined up next to many safeties. I've lined up next to at least 10 different safeties in my career. It's something that's not coachable. It's just two guys that just kind of get it."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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