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Bills' Fewell growing with his defense

Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell says he puts in about 15 hours a day during the season. Fewell admits he drives his wife nuts in the offseason by fiddling around the house at all hours. She's ready to throw him out after a week. Fewell thrives on work. He once referred to it as a drug, "probably worse than alcohol."

So by now, he must be close to an overdose. This has been a challenging year. The Bills have played six rookies. Injuries have forced him to put the kids into key roles much sooner than he intended. It has not been easy.

"No it hasn't," Fewell said Wednesday. "But it's been fun, because of the challenge of it. As a competitor, you love the challenge. You love the excitement of it. You want to prove people wrong. You want to get it done. So that has made me get up in the morning . . . ready to come to work."

There has been so much attention paid to the defensive rookies, it's been easy to overlook the fact that Fewell is in his first season running a defense. Dick Jauron thought so highly of Fewell's work as an NFL secondary coach that he brought him to Buffalo.

Fewell, 44, hasn't let Jauron down. He has gotten the most out of a young, undersized group, compensating for a weak run defense with a consistent pass rush and opportunistic secondary play. The defense has improved over last year in almost every category. In points allowed, it is 14th in the NFL, up from 25th a year ago. It has been much better in second halves, a testament to the coaches' ability to adjust.

"He just knows the game," said cornerback Kiwaukee Thomas. "With this scheme, it's more about technique, about being in your gap, about fundamentals and tackling. You have to know your spot in the defense. He's a teacher. If you do certain things well, you give yourselves a chance to win. That's what he's teaching."

Fewell has had a lot of chances to teach on a young team. Rookies Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson were thrust into the starting lineup early. Keith Ellison, whom Fewell calls the surprise of the rookies, has played various roles. Ashton Youboty was forced to play nickel in his first NFL game against the Jets.

Fewell, a native of Cramerton, N.C., never played pro football. He was a self-made star at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne College. He was been studying football since he was 7, when he analyzed his older brother's games. After 21 years as a coach, eight at the NFL level, he was ready for this job.

"I prepared all my career for this," Fewell said. "Having the opportunity to call the game, to make some decisions and really teach the players has been a lot of fun. I haven't had time to think about being a rookie coordinator. There has been some big-time learning for me. I hit the ground running fast and I haven't slowed down. Dick [Jauron] made the transition very, very easy."

Jauron said Fewell hasn't exceeded his expectations, because they were high to start with. He believed in Fewell's ability to teach and deal with people in an honest, engaging way. Fewell isn't afraid to make the tough call. He benched Terrence McGee in one game. He kept Takeo Spikes off the field on third downs.

The defense has gradually improved. Few defenses have been so effective in dictating to the Colts and holding them down. Last week, Fewell had a much smarter plan for the Jets' short passing game than in the teams' earlier meeting.

"Sometimes, we're right on cue," Fewell said. "Other times, we're not as on cue as we should be. So that's part of my growth process, too."

Fewell said he's not close to hitting any "rookie wall." The season feels young to him. In six of his eight previous NFL seasons, he coached in the playoffs.

"So I'm really just getting started," he said.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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