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Bills offensive line, John Miller's career a renovation project

John Miller begins rattling off his favorite shows on HGTV.

"Flip or Flop. Property Brothers. I'm into all that," the Bills' offensive lineman said, "because it helps me understand the numbers and how they demo things and stuff like that."

Miller, who has joined his father flipping houses in his hometown of Miami, knows that if the foundation is solid and the roof looks good, many issues are merely cosmetic. A little flooring here, a little drywall there, some new windows and a little elbow grease becomes a sweet return on investment.

But now Miller, speaking at his locker after practice Monday, is in the midst of a major renovation along the interior of the Bills offensive line, once again starting at right guard after being benched early last season. It's an overhaul, to be sure, as opposed to a complete teardown, with three new starters at various positions after the offseason departures of center Eric Wood and left guard Richie Incognito.

Ryan Groy and Russell Bodine are competing to start at center, while Vladimir Ducasse has switched from right to left guard, allowing Miller a chance to reclaim the job he'd held since his rookie season, when the Bills drafted him out of Louisville with the 81st pick in the third round in 2015.

Wood said he was surprised when Miller was benched last season, but he trusted the coaching staff.

"John has certain physical tools that he's just blessed with," Wood said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Buffalo News. "He's so strong that he really just has to stay in front of guys, and they're really not able to bull rush him. I wish I had that ability while I was playing. He has a rare anchor, is what I call it. He's also athletic enough to get out and pull, so he brings a lot of things to the table. He's also extremely football smart. He picks up concepts really well."

John Miller in 2017 (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

Wood recalled their first game together, against Indianapolis, when the rookie helped the veteran diagnose a blitz.

"The cadence was going, and John made a last-second call," Wood said. "They were bringing a blitz look, and I didn't want to make it because it was kind of late in the cadence, and John made it and we had a great play, and afterward I gave him a fist bump and I said, ‘Man, you are smart beyond your years.' I really enjoyed playing next to him."

But Pro Bowl talent like Wood and Incognito isn't easy to replace, and at this stage, the Bills' line is less granite countertop than laminate.

The Bills' starting quarterback has been knocked from each of the last two preseason games.

Josh Allen was sacked five times in 29 snaps and had to clear the NFL's concussion protocol after bouncing his head off the turf shortly before halftime of Sunday's loss to the Bengals. He was deemed OK, but did not return.

A week earlier, AJ McCarron was sacked twice in 12 snaps against the Browns and has since been limited by a shoulder injury. He did not play against Cincinnati.

"That sucks," Miller said, "because that's part of your job, is to protect the quarterback and open up lanes for the running back, so it's very unfortunate when those things happen, but at the end of the day, that's the nature of the game. It's a man-whipping-man game and no matter what the position is, injuries are a part of it."

The Bills experimented with three line variations during the team's first four possessions against the Bengals, beginning with Groy at center before moving him to left and right guard, replacing Ducasse and Miller, respectively, with Bodine at center.

Bills coach Sean McDermott said mixing the line was part of the plan — he wanted to prepare contingencies in the event of injuries during the regular season — and didn't believe juggling linemen significantly contributed to struggles in pass protection.

Miller, meanwhile, was called for a team-high three penalties, two false starts and unnecessary roughness.

Observations: Bills' O-line struggles, shuffles in loss to Bengals

"I think, just like our whole unit up front, there's been some good plays and some plays that John would like back," McDermott said. "John's one of the guys we're counting on. He sets a tone for us. He's played varsity snaps before, if you will, and we have a lot of confidence in John."

For what it's worth, Pro Football Focus has identified Miller as the lowest-graded offensive lineman on the roster this preseason and rates his pass protection among the worst in the NFL. The analytics website says he has allowed seven quarterback pressures, including a sack, on 56 pass-blocking snaps. It ranks his pass-blocking efficiency as 131st out of 138 guards who have played at least 25 snaps. And it also gives him a below-average run-blocking grade.

PFF had been similarly critical of Miller during his rookie season, ranking him 63rd out of 66 guards who played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps. Miller improved dramatically as a second-year player under former coach Rex Ryan, finishing 23rd among 61 guards using the same 50 percent threshold, before being benched after four games last year by McDermott.

"Unfortunately, I didn't do enough to keep my starting position last year," Miller said, "but the thing that got me through it was my faith in God, my dad, my family, my support system. Just coming to work and still working and grinding at it. There's this thing called 'work while you wait,' and yes it was frustrating because obviously you want to be out there with your teammates and playing in those games, but it was kind of different for me to sit back and watch. I actually learned a lot from last year."

Left tackle Dion Dawkins, who missed the Bengals game with a sore hip, said building off of mistakes and taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves are part of being a pro.

"Stuff happens, man, and John knows it. That's all a part of this game," Dawkins said. "John is definitely going to learn from it and he will keep pushing forward, because that's all he can do, is just worry about what's next."

Right tackle Jordan Mills said his familiarity playing beside Miller helps a great deal, as they've been able to develop a strong rapport.

"Me and John know each other like the back of our hands," Mills said. "We communicate just by giving a look to each other — we know what each other is about to do or what we need to do on a certain block, passing or running schemes, so it helps a lot. And that's all over the whole offensive line. That continuity that we build together. We look at each other and we depend on each other and we know we have each other's backs. So it helps a lot, just having that time — you can trust me, I can trust you, let's go destroy some things and get after it."

Wood pointed out that Miller also has experience playing alongside Groy, who stepped in as the starting center when Wood missed seven games with a broken leg in 2016, which should help limit continuity issues.

"In the preseason, when you have a bad week, sometimes the sky is falling and it's truly not," Wood said. "I heard some of their comments and I know they're looking to bounce back and they took a lot of the blame last week, but sometimes when you go from training camp practices to a game, sometimes your legs aren't quite under you, you're not game-planning for specific players, which can get you in trouble when you have Carl Lawson out there and Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap and the talented guys Cincinnati has.

"The combination of not being very effective on first and second down led to some third-and-longs, they had some offsides that really hurt them, just a lot of little things added up to a tough day for the offensive line," Wood said. "But I'm not overly concerned. Eliminating a lot of those little things will pay off down the road and can lead to some better results for them."

Through a certain lens, then, say HGTV's, Miller's career and the Bills' offensive line are a renovation project.

Coaches and players believe the structure is sound, the major issues cosmetic.

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