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Woeful Bills defense is running on empty

Jerry Gray was one of the first people out of the locker room after Sunday's 24-16 loss. The Bills' defensive coordinator was moving so quickly, he might have been mistaken for Michael Vick. Gray was in no mood for talking. He stopped only long enough to tell a reporter, "Go talk to the referees. They have all the answers."

Oh, yes. Those accursed NFL officials. There they go, spoiling the Buffalo defense's run at greatness. It must have been the officials who gave up 236 yards rushing to Atlanta, who allowed Warrick Dunn to bust a 59-yard run just before halftime and who devised an overzealous game plan that failed to contain Vick in the pocket.

Blame the officials. It's a lot easier than swallowing the hard, objective truth -- which is that Gray's celebrated defense might be the most overrated unit in the NFL, one that talks about making history when it should be worried about making tackles.

Coming off the Tampa debacle, the defense had a chance to redeem itself against Vick, one of the most dynamic athletes in sports. It failed miserably. It allowed Atlanta to average 6.6 yards per rush. It was dominated for the second week in a row.

One bad performance is an aberration. Twice is a trend, a crisis. The only history that came to mind was the horrid memory of the 2001-02 defenses under Gregg Williams. This year's "D" was supposed to carry the team. It's the worst run defense in the NFL after three weeks.

It's getting shredded for 174 yards a game.

"We're better than that," said head coach Mike Mularkey, "and our players know we're better than that. We pride ourselves on stopping the run."

Mularkey said the defense has been effective against the run, except for the occasional lapse that results in a big gain. It sounded like the worst of the Williams era, when coaches and players insisted that the run defense was actually OK -- if you took out the long plays.

Granted, the offense had a big share in this loss. J.P. Losman was terrible again. The Falcons played without their top three cornerbacks for half the game, and the Bills couldn't take advantage. Eric Moulds said he hated to second-guess the coaches. Then he did it, anyway. He said you have to exploit backup corners. You have to make teams pay.

Moulds is right. He has eight catches for 66 yards on the season. He's on the verge of blowing his stack. The Bills are coaching scared. They're afraid to let Losman throw the intermediate passes. They went deep a few times, but otherwise it's a lot of dink and dunk. They're averaging under 9 yards a completion, the lowest in the league.

And when it was time to assert their physical identity, they got cute. On their opening possession, the Bills had a first down at Atlanta's 12. Willis McGahee had rushed for 12 and 7 yards on his previous two carries. So what did they do? They rolled Losman out on first down and he took a 12-yard sack. They settled for a field goal.

Late in the game, rookie Duke Preston spelled Chris Villarrial at right guard. Preston was on the field for Losman's failed sneak on fourth down and his sack/fumble with 1:45 to play. Asked why Preston had been in the game at such a critical time, Mularkey said Villarrial was "winded."

Pressed on the issue, Mularkey got a little touchy with a reporter.

"I'm not as good as you are at evaluating," he said. "The timing of it was called for. At some point, some rookie may have to play a whole game, which (Preston) is capable of doing."

It sounds like Mularkey is already looking to the future. Maybe it's not such a bad idea. Losman isn't ready to compete at a high level. The kid needs time. They might as well let him take his lumps because the defense isn't nearly as good as people thought. What does it matter who plays quarterback if the "D" can't hold up its end of the bargain?

Over the past year, the Bills have played four games against last year's conference finalists (Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New England twice). They're 0-4. They've allowed an average of 28 points and 175 rushing yards in those games. That's an elite defense?

Now their best player and spiritual leader, Takeo Spikes, is probably out for the season with a torn Achilles. If they couldn't hold their own against the top offenses with Spikes at outside linebacker, how good can they expect to be without him?

Gray has his work cut out for him. He loves to blitz and look for the big play. But the "D" isn't making big plays. It's too busy watching teams run the ball down its throat. The defense miscalculated Sunday by attacking Vick, rather than making him beat them from the pocket. Gray would have been wiser to take a page from Bill Belichick's book, the one he used against Doug Flutie when Belichick was with the Jets.

You can't play attack defense if you can't stop the run. Two straight weeks, opposing offenses have smacked the Bills in the mouth, and they've folded like cheap tissue. Go ahead, blame Losman. But remember, the defense was supposed to carry him on days like this.

"I don't know if anybody in our building has said (the defense) needs to carry us," Mularkey said. "That's not a word coming out of our mouths."

Actually, it was Spikes who said it during training camp. He told Losman not to worry. The defense would carry the team. Sunday, Spikes was the one being carried off. You could sense a lot of misplaced hopes going out the tunnel with him.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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