Eye on Bears' enemy: Bills overdue

Eye on Bears' enemy: Bills overdue
September 2, 2014, 8:45 am
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If Bears fans think one playoff appearance in the past seven years isn't nearly good enough, consider Sunday's regular-season opening foe.

The last time the Bills made the playoffs was 1999. Man, that Music City Miracle has to feel extra painful over 14 years. Oh, and they enter 2014 with nine straight losing seasons and haven't won more than six games over the past five years.

A cloud of uncertainty hovers over the franchise following the March passing of its patriarch, Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson, and the possibility the loyal Buffalo fanbase could lose its team when a new owner is decided. That places a little extra pressure to end the winning record drought on second-year head coach Doug Marrone once a new boss is determined.

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Over the past two drafts, general manager Doug Whaley's put a premium on offensive weapons to balance the talented backfield tandem of C.J. Spiller (927 yards last season) and Fred Jackson (896). Those two will provide an immediate test for this Bears defense trying to prove last year's franchise-worst defense against the run is one-and-done.

Whaley thought the time was right to give up his ninth overall pick this past May, and his first- and fourth-rounders next season, to move up to fourth overall for the consensus best receiver coming out of college, Sammy Watkins. Watkins, though, isn't expected to be fully healthy after injuring his ribs in each of the last two exhibitions. While he returned to practice Monday, it's uncertain how much he did, and how effective he will be Sunday on the lakefront.

This comes after a 2013 class in which E.J. Manuel was the only quarterback chosen in the first round, and spending second- and third-round picks on two other wideouts, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. The 6-foot-5 Manuel missed six games with three different knee injuries as a rookie. The rest of the time, he completed 59 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 77.7 rating. His work ethic has been unquestioned, now it's a matter of finding what his ceiling is on mechanics and decision-making.

Spiller and Jackson helped the Bills rank second in the NFL in rushing offense a year ago, but they were ranked 28th passing. After the three-day Jordan Palmer experiment in search of a solid backup (if not tips on the Bears' offense), another ex-Bear — Kyle Orton — signed over the weekend. Former Bears first-round bust Chris Williams started all 16 games in St. Louis a year ago and moved on to the Bills, where he's projected to start at guard even though he's still battling back issues.

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Defensively, particularly against the pass, is where we start to get a good idea of whether the Bears' attack will find the next level. Even though they lost Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency, Buffalo owns a talented cornerback pair in ex-first-rounders Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore, with the help of a club-record 57 sacks in a hybrid scheme under current Browns head coach Mike Pettine. That sacks total was second in the NFL, as were their 23 interceptions. Former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz now inherits that unit that boasts 41 of those sacks coming from a talented, re-constituted line of Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams on the inside, and Jerry Hughes opposite former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams, who puts his hand back on the ground after often playing off the line in Pettine's system.

But that defense will be hurt by the torn ACL suffered in the offseason by Defensive Rookie of the Year finalist Kiko Alonso. The second-round pick from a year ago came out of nowhere to play every snap and finish third in the NFL in tackles (159). While they acquired ex-Patriot Brandon Spikes as a run-stopper, fellow linebacker Nigel Bradham will be serving a one-game suspension Sunday at Soldier Field.

Yet another former Bear, Corey Graham, is the Bills' nickel back and will be an asset on special teams, where he once earned Pro Bowl honors. One other aspect of their special teams is in transition after veteran Brian Moorman was waived. McKelvin — after setting the league on fire a la Devin Hester in punt returns in 2011 and 2012 — averaged just 5.6 per return last season.