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On Football

Wounded Buffalo limps in

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 28, 2011
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These are not your Week 3 Bills, who came back from a 21-point deficit to beat the Patriots, 34-31, at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

This group has been ravaged by injuries since the last time the Patriots saw them.

Heading into Saturday’s win over the Broncos, the Bills ranked third in the league in games lost to injuries by starters with 71.

Yesterday, Buffalo placed its 17th player on injured reserve, tight end Mike Caussin. That’s second in the league behind the Jaguars (22).

Since starting the season 3-0, the Bills have lost some significant players who contributed in the victory over the Patriots, including:

Running back Fred Jackson, who had 161 yards of total offense and a touchdown on 17 touches.

Center Eric Wood, who helped an offense that gained 448 yards against the Patriots and didn’t allow a sack.

Receiver Donald Jones, who set a career high with 101 yards on five catches.

Defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who had two knockdowns of Tom Brady.

Outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, who had two hurries and a quarterback knockdown.

Kicker Rian Lindell, who had two field goals, including the winner with no time left.

Left tackle Demetrius Bell, who anchored a line that allowed zero sacks and just five quarterback pressures, the fewest posted by the Patriots’ defense this season.

The Bills have also lost three starters who didn’t play against the Patriots: center Kraig Urbik, cornerback Terrence McGee, and receiver Roscoe Parrish.

The Bills’ offensive line is really a mess at this point. They are now missing three Opening Day starters.

Urbik, who had already moved from right guard to center after Wood’s injury, and Bell left the game against the Broncos with injuries and are done for the season.

Buffalo had just six healthy offensive linemen before promoting Michael Jasper from the practice squad.

Chris Hairston, a fourth-round pick out of Clemson, will likely start at left tackle against the Patriots. Colin Brown, a fifth-round pick of the Chiefs in 2009, will start at center. That leaves Andy Levitre (left guard) and Erik Pears (right tackle) as the only Opening Day starters left. Chad Rinehart, who started at right guard against the Patriots when Urbik moved to center, will be there again as well.

Of course, the Patriots won’t take much pity on the Bills.

New England will be missing at least three starting linemen - center Dan Koppen, left guard Logan Mankins, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer - and possibly a fourth if Matt Light’s ankle isn’t ready.

A look at the current state of the Bills, who had lost seven straight games before beating the Broncos, 40-14.

Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick has cooled off after his hot start. The former Harvard star didn’t post a passer rating below 75.5 in the first seven games. He has five in the previous eight games, with 12 interceptions. Fitzpatrick completed 67.7 percent of his passes in the first seven games, 57.5 percent since.

Running back: C.J. Spiller has done a nice job the previous two weeks with 202 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries (7.2-yard average). He’s still dangerous catching passes, with 103 yards and a touchdown on 11 receptions against the Dolphins and Broncos. Former Cowboys running back Tashard Choice is now the backup.

Receiver: With Parrish and Jones not available, opponents have been able to key on Stevie Johnson and David Nelson in recent weeks. They combined for 14 catches, 174 yards, eight first downs, and a touchdown against the Patriots. After catching seven passes for 72 yards against the Titans Dec. 4, former Jet Brad Smith has 13 yards on four receptions. Former Dolphin and Raider Derek Hagan has six catches since signing with the team in November. The Bills are down to Kevin Brock, who had his first career catch last week, at tight end.

Defensive line: Marcell Dareus, the third overall pick, has taken over for Kyle Williams inside and done a nice job. His 5.5 sacks are the most by a Bills rookie since Aaron Schobel had 6.5 in 2001. The 51 tackles by Dwan Edwards are fifth among AFC ends. Alex Carrington has moved from linebacker to end because of injuries.

Linebacker: Nick Barnett has been doing what he did with the Packers - make a lot of tackles. Barnett is fourth among AFC inside linebackers (10th among all NFL linebackers) with 119 tackles. On the strong side, Chris Kelsay has battled injuries but has 22 tackles and three sacks in the past three games. Kelvin Sheppard is tied for fourth among rookie linebackers with 64 tackles. Spencer Johnson, who returned an interception for a touchdown last week, is now at the weak-side outside spot.

Secondary: Still a good unit, with George Wilson and Jairus Byrd at safety, with Drayton Florence and rookie Aaron Williams starting at cornerback. Justin Rogers, who is a rookie seventh-round pick from Richmond, is the nickel cornerback. It’s a ball-hawking secondary. The Bills are tied with the Patriots for the AFC lead with 30 takeaways and lead with 20 interceptions. Since 2009, Florence is tied for sixth in the NFL with 38 passes defensed. Byrd has 13 interceptions since 2009, tied for second in the AFC behind Baltimore’s Ed Reed. Wilson and Byrd are both in the top eight in defensive back tackles.

Special teams: Punter Brian Moorman is still among the AFC’s best with a 48.5-yard gross average. Veteran Dave Rayner has taken over the kicking duties. He made four of six field goal attempts against the Broncos. The Bills have two dangerous returners. Leodis McKelvin had an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Broncos. Since taking over the kick-return duties in Week 14, Rogers leads the NFL with a 30.1-yard average.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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