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Vic Carucci: How soon will Bills' O-line improve?

The images linger. Pick almost any pass play while the Bills' starters were on the field for the third game of the preseason. You'll see a Cincinnati Bengal — sometimes two or three — tearing into the backfield with virtually no resistance. Then you'll see Josh Allen fleeing for his life or getting sacked or tossed around the way a dog plays with a favorite chew toy.

You decide that all of your worst fears have been confirmed.

No Eric Wood. No Richie Incognito. No Cordy Glenn. Yup, this offensive line is the disaster everyone expected.

Maybe those dire predictions for the Bills' 2018 season are mostly rooted in the fact the No. 1 quarterback job is in the inexperienced hands of Nathan Peterman, with even less experience behind him.

But the state of the O-line is a close second. The bashing has been in full force for the past two weeks and there's no end in sight.

"They're an easy target right now, based upon the biggest game of the preseason," Wood said by phone Wednesday from his home in Louisville.

He's a spectator now, thanks to the career-ending neck issues discovered after last season, but the nine-year Bills center maintains a connection with most of the the group he once anchored.

Wood has been contact with some of his former linemates since that debacle against Cincinnati. He has done his best to provide encouragement and a little helpful guidance, although he saw what the rest of us saw.

"They played very poor," Wood said. "But I think there's brighter days ahead for this offensive line."

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Really? How could that be? On Sunday, the Bills face the Ravens, who have one of the better defensive fronts in the NFL, at Baltimore. There will be the mammoth challenge of keeping a dominant pass-rush, led by Terrell Suggs, off of Peterman's back. It's a chore made all the more difficult by the variety of fronts the Ravens employ, with a great deal of coverage-disguising to force the quarterback to hold the ball too long.

And the line's ability to communicate will be greatly challenged by the din of the crowd noise in M&T Bank Stadium.

So it's hard believing Sunday could be one of those "brighter days."

Yet, it's fair to think that, given some of the other circumstances with which the Bills' blockers will be dealing, the optimism isn't totally far-fetched.

For one thing, they'll have a game plan. So will the Ravens' defense, but the offense's scheming generally puts the D in a reactionary mode. For another, they'll have prepared with a set starter at center: Ryan Groy, who had been alternating with Russell Bodine since the start of offseason drills. Wood sees that as a highly underrated factor in the line's ability to make big strides quickly.

"I think it'll speed up the process now that they've made Groy the starter," he said. "I don't know Bodine personally, but I would say Groy is probably the best leader of the ones that I was around from a vocal standpoint and knowledge standpoint. And your center generally is going to have the most leadership qualities, being that he's got to be the most vocal on the line. He gets everybody organized.

"Now that he's been named the starter, that gives him some comfort zone to really start speaking out. It's hard to speak up too much when you're in a position battle because if you're not the starter, especially at center ... you feel very weird calling guys out, trying to organize the group, trying to get everyone on the same page how you want it as a center until you're named the starter."

The end of rotating quarterbacks in practices and preseason games is another plus for the line. Little consideration is given to how much adjusting the line must do when there's a different man behind center. Until AJ McCarron was shipped to Oakland last Saturday, the Bills had three taking turns in that spot.

Beyond that, there's plenty the Bills figure to include in their offensive scheming that wasn't present against the Bengals.

Given that the primary purpose of the game was to evaluate, there was no chip-blocking by backs to help with pass protection. New Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll wouldn't have utilized any of the true cadences that he's going to employ Sunday and throughout the rest of the regular season.

"That kind of stuff will help," Wood said. "As the season goes on, that can alleviate some of the pressure up front. And then, obviously, from a schematic standpoint, running the football effectively always helps pass protection. So does staying out of third-and-long. They had a lot of illegal procedures in that third preseason game. That automatically makes it very tough on the offensive line."

Geoff Schwartz, a former long-time NFL offensive guard and a current co-host for SiriusXM NFL Radio, thinks Allen also made things particularly difficult on those who supposedly were trying to protect him.

"It was Josh Allen drop back, look at one wide receiver and stop," Schwartz said. "I think part of the reason why Nathan Peterman is starting is because he does get the ball out quicker and he's able to probably navigate an entire offense where you can make adjustments better than Josh Allen can at this point. (The five sacks) were not all on Allen. There were definitely times where the line was getting beat and as a former offensive lineman, I understand that quarterbacks can help a little bit. But he didn't help at all."

Schwartz would expect Daboll to call plenty of quick passes, something that was lacking against Cincinnati. He also wouldn't be shocked if there were some empty formations, which would seem counterintuitive given the protection issues and the Ravens' pass-rushing dominance. However, it would provide Peterman with as many as four targets that he would go to quickly, as opposed to longer-developing plays behind maximum protection that allows for only two receivers.

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"I don't know if they trust Peterman to do this, but when I've had a good quarterback and we're playing a good pass rush, you can spread everyone out and you run up-tempo and get them tired and you throw the ball quickly," Schwartz said. "I don't know if they're going to do that, but that's a great way to mitigate a pass rush."

That's the strategic part of the line rallying from a brutal showing in the so-called tuneup for the regular season.

There's an emotional part as well. Groy, left tackle Dion Dawkins, left guard Vlad Ducasse, right guard John Miller and right tackle Jordan Mills are well aware of the criticism downpour. They insist it's something they can handle by staying focused on what's ahead of them and the support of the coaching staff.

"Maybe (there's) not a whole lot of outside faith in them," Sean McDermott told reporters. "I think they embrace that. There's not a name on the board that are household names. (But) all of those guys take a lot of pride in their work and I'm extremely confident in them."

"We have a room full of confident guys who are absolutely capable of playing," reserve tackle Marshall Newhouse said. "We have guys that are, I'll call them ornery. They're aware (of the criticism), but it doesn't bother them. And they're all determined, as a group, to kind of just shove it back in whoever's face."

Newhouse is entering his ninth NFL season. He has seen a whole lot in the 100 games he has played. He might not see the field Sunday or in any game this year, but as a coach's son who has spent his life around football, he has plenty to offer his fellow linemen.

Dawkins, in his second year, is never shy about asking his senior teammate for help. Even some of the guards seek Newhouse's wisdom.

"I won't necessarily give unsolicited stuff, but I'm like, ‘Hey, do you want me to watch you (in practice) today?'" Newhouse said. "Or when we're watching film together, 'Hey, what do you see here? What's your approach here?' And I can just lend my two cents and they can take whatever they want."

If there is improvement, it's unlikely to show up soon. Even with an established line, new offenses tend to require time to be fully comprehended and executed properly. Sometimes, it takes as long as the first half of the season. Sometimes, it takes the entire year.

However, Wood believes it is way too early to give up on the group he was forced to leave behind.

"When we look at this line, we're not talking about them in the same breath as the Eagles' O-line or maybe the Cowboys' O-line when healthy right now. They don't have that kind of talent," he said. "But I do think they could be a good group in that they have five guys to start the year that all have starting experience in the NFL. And not all lines can say that."

In the meantime, the best hope is there aren't too many times when a member of the unit turns around to say, "Look out!"

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