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Passing game needs a shot in the arm

One thing about Terrell Owens: The man inspires passionate feelings. There's no middle ground with the Bills' star wide receiver. T.O. is the type of personality that bumps people off the fence and demands a strong opinion.

Sentiment was split down the middle when I criticized Owens for refusing to speak after the opener. A lot of people felt it was unfair to suggest that T.O. should have talked. They said Owens was smart not to give the national media a chance to exaggerate his remarks in the heat of a crushing loss.

I saw their point two days later, when ESPN created a national incident out of some fairly innocuous comments by Owens on media day.

Owens said the Bills missed some opportunities in the passing game and "Trent has to better assess what he's seeing out there and take some shots down the field."

This wasn't exactly a revelation. A month ago, every Bills watcher was saying the same thing. Trent needing to better assess and take some shots was the dominant theme of preseason.

Owens was simply being honest. Lee Evans, his fellow wideout, said the same thing, without mentioning his quarterback by name. "We have to be able to take those shots," Evans said.

Edwards' willingness to throw downfield was an issue heading into the season, and it's still an issue.

Owens and Evans have been urging Edwards to take more shots since the start of training camp. After the Green Bay debacle in preseason, Evans said he and Edwards had been talking about it "since this whole thing started" -- as in, the Cleveland game last season.

The Bills didn't bring Owens here to function as a decoy, or so Evans could be a possession receiver. The idea was that getting an elite second receiver would open up things for Evans. No one wants to hear Edwards saying the defense took both of his receivers out of the game, as he did after Monday's loss.

Cynics assume Owens will lose his cool if things don't change soon. I wonder if Evans will blow first. Evans, who entered the season with a career average of 16 yards a catch, hasn't made a catch of more than 15 yards in his last five regular-season games. He has one catch of more than 22 yards in his last nine.

Evans doesn't have a touchdown reception since the San Diego game 11 months ago. That's not what the Bills had in mind last October when they gave him a four-year contract extension worth more than $9 million a season. That's the largest average salary of any athlete in Buffalo history. This year, Evans is on the books for $9.87 million.

It's time for Evans to start justifying the investment. Why can't he be more like Wes Welker, who never gets taken out of the game? Welker caught 111 passes last year with Matt Cassel as his quarterback.

Evans made his reputation on the deep ball. That's why he backed J.P. Losman, whose one undeniable talent was heaving the ball as far as he could so Evans could run under it. But Evans hasn't demonstrated the savvy, underneath route-running ability of an elite NFL receiver.

Maybe this will be the week that Evans breaks out. The Bills need him. The opener was an encouraging start, especially for the young offensive line. But there are still fundamental questions about the offense, and about the wisdom of using a no-huddle attack with a conservative Dick Jauron defense.

Time of possession is an issue. The Bills didn't run the no-huddle at a very fast pace in the opener. Still, the defense spent a lot of time on the field and seemed tired in the fourth. There's motivation to play ball control to keep the "D" fresh.

Still, the Bucs are an ideal opponent for a team seeking to establish a downfield passing attack. They no longer specialize in the "Tampa 2" defense of previous regimes.

Under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, the Bucs favor an aggressive approach. They take chances, leaving their corners to work one-on-one. They like to play bump and run, which leaves them vulnerable to the deep ball. Owens is tough to jam at the line, and we know how dangerous Evans can be against single coverage.

So it could be an interesting day for the Bills, a chance to build on the momentum of the opener and separate themselves from last year's grisly finish. They lost their last five home games, remember, so it'll be nice to win the home opener and begin to reassert a home-field edge.

It'll also be great for morale if Edwards hits a few throws downfield and gets Owens and Evans more involved. Checking down has its place, but this team isn't going anywhere if the wideouts don't make big plays.

The Bills need to put Monday behind them, while building on the positive momentum of that loss. Losing to a bad Tampa team and falling to 0-2 would be a big step back.

Remember, the Bills suffered crushing losses on Monday night the last two years and won their next game (Baltimore in '07, K.C. in '08). Evans averaged more than 100 yards receiving in those games.

And that was without T.O.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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