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Defense climbs steep learning curve to prove its mettle

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the Buffalo Bills defense was the asphalt, the opposing offense the steam roller. Game planning for the Bills amounted to 10 minutes work on Monday, when a motion to run the ball early and often was made, seconded and passed with unanimity.

What sense was there in plotting a diverse plan of attack when the stat sheet told it all: sixth from the bottom in NFL rushing defense, a generous yield of 4.8 yards per carry? Teams jumped on the trend with unfettered glee as five straight Buffalo opponents amassed at least 147 yards on the ground heading into last week's game against the New York Jets.

It looked like more of the same Sunday when Miami took the opening kickoff and began pounding away, veteran backup Sammy Morris making like Mercury Morris as the Dolphins peeled away chunks of yardage while plunging into Buffalo territory. And then, just like that, the Bills' young, developing defense again showed signs it is coming of age.

Doubtless the "genius" of Mike Mularkey, Miami's offensive coordinator, factored into the dynamic turnaround that resulted in a 21-0 Bills victory at The Ralph. The Dolphins were in prime four-down territory, facing a third-and-4 from the Buffalo 31, when Mularkey surrendered to caprice, ignored headwinds gusting to 25 mph and twice put the ball in the air. The Bills took over on downs, and the Dolphins were never quite the same.

"They came out and did some things differently," linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "They stuck with their base runs, but they did them out of some different formations. So we had to adjust and understand what they were doing. Once we did that we contained them."

There was more than Mularkey's misguided hunches working in Buffalo's favor. Coordinator Perry Fewell's defense, which now uses four rookie starters, is fast improving. The Dolphins were held to 12 first downs, three on their first drive and four while in a desperate drive to avert a shutout on their final series. Since halftime of last week's 31-13 rout of the Jets, the Bills have yielded a scant 17 first downs over six quarters.

And while Buffalo's defense continues to bend, nowadays seldom does it snap. It's been seven quarters since the Bills last allowed a touchdown. They've outscored the opposition, 73-20, since halftime of their Dec. 3 loss to San Diego. The four rookie defensive starters have been integral contributors to the about-face. Linebacker Keith Ellison was second on the team with eight tackles and produced a vital interception Sunday. Strong safety Donte Whitner was third in tackles with seven. Free safety Ko Simpson and tackle Kyle Williams both ranked in the top eight. The growing pains continue to subside.

"It's just part of being a young player," Ellison said. "It takes time to learn how to play at this level, especially with a new defense coming in. It takes time to know what you're supposed to do in a defense and where you're supposed to fit. As the season's gone on, we've gotten better, and it's good that the young guys have gotten a lot of opportunities to go out there and play because it's going to help us in the future."

The Bills started smelling shutout on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Ellison intercepted Joey Harrington at the Buffalo 40. London Fletcher was impressed. The Dolphins had given the Bills a new look at the line in an attempt to confound Buffalo's coverage. Ellison was unfazed.

"He was probably 30 yards downfield, and that was a formation we hadn't seen," Fletcher said. "For him to make that interception, as a rookie player, that says a lot about his development."

The dwindling clock stiffened the defense's resolve, fed its desire. The Bills hadn't shut out an opponent since the 2003 season opener.

"By all means we wanted to keep them out of the end zone and keep points off the board," said end Chris Kelsay. "We didn't want them to score at all on us."

"We wanted to finish the job," Fletcher said. "We had a situation down there when we played them in Miami to get the shutout, and we didn't do it."

There was no garbage touchdown yielded on this occasion, no late TD that spared the Dolphins the embarrassment of being blanked in the defeat that extinguished their playoff chances. The Bills foiled Miami on four straight attempts from the Buffalo 2. And when a penalty gave the Dolphins one more shot, a mulligan as Fletcher called it, Ryan Denney batted down a pass to stymie them again, preserving the ultimate reward for a defense on the rapid rise.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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