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On the comeback trail; Merriman impresses in opening defeat

CHICAGO -- Shawne Merriman and the Buffalo Bills' rebuilt defense made a good preseason debut Saturday night.

Merriman had two sacks and helped cause another while on the field for just nine plays against the Chicago Bears.

Most of the starters for the Bills and Bears played only the first quarter, and the Bills held a 3-0 lead after 15 minutes. Chicago held a 7-3 lead at halftime and went on to win, 10-3.

Merriman, trying to revive his career after three injury-plagued seasons, applied pressure to help rookie Marcell Dareus get a sack on the Bills' first defensive series. Merriman had sacks on back-to-back plays to force the Bears to go three-plays-and-out on their second possession.

"It felt good," Merriman said. "I haven't been on the field in a long time, so getting out there on the field was a good start for me. I have a long way to go.

"I just went out there and mixed it up a little bit," said Merriman, acquired by the Bills off waivers from San Diego in the middle of last season. "I came off the ball fast and saw an opening to get to the quarterback. That's why I am here and that's what I do."

Dareus, the third overall pick in the NFL draft, looked good, too, creating penetration from his defensive end spot.

"I think it went pretty well," Dareus said. "I can work on staying low a little better. But I think I played well in this defensive (scheme)."

The Bills' defense had nine sacks for the game. Linebacker Danny Batten also had two.

"Two or three things that stood out to me about the game:" said Bills coach Chan Gailey, "One on special teams we let too many returns go out there. The second thing is I felt like our first defense played strong. We let a draw and a quarterback scramble get out and that was about it. ... The understatement of the evening is I thought Merriman was impressive on his return."

Bills starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 7 of 9 passes for 44 yards in two possessions before going to the bench.

"We want to get the ball out of my hands and into our playmakers' hands and see what they can do with the ball," Fitzpatrick said. "We wanted C.J. (Spiller) to get some touches, but unfortunately the footing wasn't great out there. So he slipped a few times, but he did a good job overall."

The Bills scored first, marching 45 yards in 5:59 to a field goal. Rian Lindell kicked it from 44 yards to put Buffalo ahead, 3-0, with 2 minutes left in the first quarter.

Chicago answered with a touchdown midway through the second quarter. Bears backup quarterback Caleb Hanie drove his team 52 yards in nine plays. Hanie scored on a quarterback scramble up the middle from 4 yards with 8:07 left in the first half.

Defense was the focus of the Bills' offseason moves after the team finished 32nd in the NFL against the run last season.

Chicago's first drive was shut down after one first down. The Bills stuffed two running plays but then allowed Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to scramble for a 10-yard gain up the middle to the Chicago 31. On the ensuing first down, Dareus threw Bears back Chester Taylor for a 1-yard gain off left tackle. Then Taylor was held to a 3-yard gain off left tackle. On third and 6 from the 35, Merriman beat Bears tackle J'Marcus Webb wide and Dareus burst through the middle of the Bears line. Dareus was credited with the sack. Webb was called for holding on Merriman, a penalty that was declined.

Chicago was set up in great position on its second drive after a 70-yard kickoff return by Johnny Knox to the Buffalo 29. But Taylor was stuffed for a 1-yard loss as inside linebacker Andra Davis plugged the hole well. On second down, Merriman outmuscled Webb for a 2-yard sack of Hanie (all of the Bears' other starters besides the quarterback were on the field). On third and 13 from the Buffalo 32, Merriman rushed inside and bulled through two Bears to sack Hanie for a 5-yard loss. Chicago was forced to punt from the Buffalo 37.

"It's preseason," Merriman said. "Guys on both teams are still trying to get their feet under them. This is just one small step going in the right direction and that's all I can ask for right now."

"Merriman came out with a lot of energy and aggression," Webb said. "I guess I need to get better and match his intensity."

The Bills' first drive stalled after one first down. Fitzpatrick hit Stevie Johnson on a slant on a third-and-5 play for an 8-yard gain to the Buffalo 40. The series stalled from there. Spiller was dumped for a 3-yard loss on first down by Bears defensive tackle Henry Miller, who got penetration on guard Kraig Urbik. Fitzpatrick threw incomplete over the middle on third down, and the Bills had to punt.

The Bills' second drive started at their own 29. Fred Jackson ran for 11 yards off left tackle, and Spiller gained 6 yards up the middle. Fitzpatrick hit Spiller on a slant pass for a 10-yard gain to the Chicago 35. The Bills moved backward after a pass interference penalty on Donald Jones but Fitzpatrick got the offense back to the Bears' 26, and on fourth and 1, Lindell kicked the field goal.

The Bills finished the first half with four quarterback sacks. Spencer Johnson added another late in the second quarter. Chicago used its backups at the skill positions after the first quarter but kept its starting offensive line on the field for the entire first half.

The Bears got two good returns in the first half. The 70-yarder came against the Bills' backups on kickoff coverage. Earl Bennett added a 40-yard punt return just before halftime. That set up a 56-yard field-goal try by Robbie Gould with 4 seconds left in the half. It sailed wide right.

"I thought our down the line guys didn't play as well as I hoped they would," Gailey said. "We've got to find who can step up to play at the next level."

The Bills started Jones at receiver in place of Lee Evans, who was traded to Baltimore on Friday. Jones made five starts last season and had 18 catches.

The turf at Soldier Field seemed in reasonable condition before the game, although some of the seams where sod was laid down still were visible.

New natural-grass turf was installed about a month ago, but insufficient watering casued some of the edges of the sod rows to curl up. A Bears practice at Soldier Field on Aug. 5 had to be cancelled. Rain fell Saturday afternoon and stadium crews kept a tarp on the field until an hour before kickoff. The teams warmed up on the turf without problem. However stadium workers canvassed the field inspecting the grass filling in some spots with dirt.

mgaughan@buffnews.com