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Linebacker depth is a test for Bills

Green is the dominant color when it comes to the Buffalo Bills’ reserve linebackers.

Projected starters Nigel Bradham, Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers have a combined 145 NFL appearances and 99 starts. The current second team of Stevenson Sylvester, Preston Brown and Randell Johnson has 50 appearances and two starts – all belonging to Sylvester.

The Bills need to tap into that depth in Week One with Bradham serving a suspension.

Spikes feels like the replacement – whoever winds up with the job – will be ready. The reserves get a second chance to impress the coaching staff tonight in preseason game No. 2 against the Carolina Panthers (7:30 p.m., Ch. 7, Radio 550 AM) at Bank of America Stadium.

“They are very smart players, for them to be as young as they are. I feel like, physically and mentally, they can do it all as far as being able to interchange with each linebacker position,” Spikes said. “They’ve been doing a great job. I’m kind of impressed with them in the way they’re taking in the new scheme. It’s fun to see how they get in and carry themselves like professionals. We definitely can count on those guys if somebody goes down.”

When star linebacker Kiko Alonso was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee prior to the start of training camp, it opened what was thought to be a competition between primarily Bradham and Brown.

But that never materialized as Bradham grabbed hold of the job from the start of camp. Brown has taken snaps only at middle linebacker behind Spikes.

The second-team defense will look to get off to a better start tonight. In the preseason opener Sunday against the New York Giants, the reserve defense gave up an 80-yard touchdown drive in its first series. Defending the run was a particular problem, with 62 of the 80 yards coming on the ground.

“As far as the whole defense, I think we definitely have some improvement, some stuff we need to clean up,” Spikes said. “It was good to see the young guys go out there and compete. … We’ve just got to keep working.”

Spikes came to the Bills with some off-the-field issues but has become a leader in positional meetings.

“I always take the approach of being a professional. At times when I was younger, I had problems with that, learning the ‘Patriot Way’ and stuff like that,” he said. “My hat is off to them. They showed me how to be a true professional on and off the field and how to conduct myself and be a professional. Watching film, taking care of my body … those are things I’ve been doing as a vet – which I should – but I’m just trying to pay close attention to that.”

Bills coach Doug Marrone said coming from a divisional rival is a difficult transition, but one that Spikes has done well with.

“He’s done a nice job. He was around quite a bit,” during spring workouts, “probably more than he has been in the past,” Marrone said. “He’s done a nice job here in camp, getting his weight down – which I wish he would’ve done before he came to camp – but we’ve got him where we want him now.”

Johnson, a seventh-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, led the Bills in the preseason opener with six tackles. Brown had an interception that was called back on a penalty.

“Tremendous athleticism. They’re going to be great,” Bradham said. “They’re smart. They’ve got good instincts. They’ve got pretty much every tool you need at linebacker. … I honestly feel like they’re prepared. They understand. They watch the film, they study. They write everything down. Any time you get guys like that, who want to learn and want to be great, you know you’ve got a good unit behind you.

“They’re just inexperienced right now, but they’ll get that experience. I trust in all those guys.”

The Bills had just two practices in between preseason games, so Marrone was tight-lipped about how much he planned to play his starters tonight. It wouldn’t be a surprise, however, to see them play the entire first quarter. From there, the process of getting the young reserves more experience will begin.

“They’re in there trying to show us that they can play and make this roster, one. Two, they need to show us that they’re maybe good enough to be around to make the practice squad. And three, it’s really a resume for them that if we don’t feel we have room for them on ours, another team can pick them up on their roster or another team can pick them up on their practice squad,” Marrone said. “So there’s really a lot going on in those games, for them as individuals and for us as coaches as we play through it.”


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