Last year at this time Buffalo's offensive line was experiencing some very loud and critical Monday morning meetings after losses. The Bills were 0-3 in 2010 after three games on their way to 0-8. Offensive line coaches by nature are vocal, blunt and demanding, and Buffalo's Joe D'Alessandris is no different. But after a 3-0 start to the 2011 campaign and the offensive line playing its most consistent football in the Chan Gailey era, the atmosphere in that offensive line room has been much more palatable.
"He's always nitpicking," said Eric Wood of D'Alessandris. "But the grades are a lot higher this year than they were at times last year, I'll say that. These meetings have been a lot more friendly than they had been in the past. We have a good group of guys that work hard. You can say whatever you want about our o-line but we work and we get after it. I feel like we play the game the way it should be played."
Through the first three games it'd be hard to argue. Buffalo's offensive line ranks fourth in rushing (155 yds/gm), 11th in passing (276 yds/gm) and leads the league in sacks per play allowed surrendering just one sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick on 113 pass plays.
The NFL changed a play in the Oakland game on a Brad Smith play that was initially a rush for loss and later changed to a sack, so technically the Bills have given up two sacks on the season on 114 pass plays. Either way it's still good enough for the best in football, which speaks to how synchronized Buffalo's front five have been thus far.
"We're encouraged," said Wood. "We've got a lot of confidence right now. We're going to try to keep it that way. Guys have done good things. Our tackles have played great."
Demetrius Bell and Erik Pears weren't seen by those outside the organization as premiere pass protecting talent, but they've performed and handled their share of one-on-one matchups through the first three games.
With Chan Gailey deploying a healthy number of empty backfields with five wide sets, it leaves Buffalo's front five with no help. In many cases it's six-on-five or five-on-five, and for the most part the linemen have held up.
"They've done a tremendous job," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "Again this past week they come out of the game, I think we've given up one (sack) the whole year. I can't say enough about those guys. They're putting in so much work during the week, just working together."
Of course the linemen credit Fitzpatrick with organizing the protections or changing them pre-snap as well as getting the ball out quickly.
"Fitz does a lot," said Wood. "In those spread formations we're putting a lot of talent on the field, and that's Chan's philosophy. Put as much talent as you can on the field and put guys in a position to win. When Fitz is hitting fades right off the bat those safeties start creeping out of the box, and then you have a guy like Freddy… that guy breaks more tackles… Lately we've kind of had the perfect balance of him with deep passes or getting guys in space with the ball and then hit him right up the middle or on a stretch play with a run. Those spread formations have been really friendly to us."
Where Buffalo's head coach sees the biggest difference from last year to this year is in the communication between the linemen. He believes that is what has led to more consistent execution up front.
"Anytime you can use the same terminology two years in a row, those guys gain confidence in talking to each other and they can even use code words now they all understand," said Gailey. "It's better that you're not using the same word every time you walk to the line of scrimmage. You can use three words for some calls you might have so that the defense can't pick up on it. That communication is vital. I've said all along, the cohesiveness and the communication of the offensive line is the most vital part of your football team."
"They're doing a great job together," said Fitzpatrick. "Passing different line games and things off and there's so much that goes into it for those guys. All five of them have to be on the same page working together and I think whether it's two guys passing something off or the tackle knowing there's something inside, they've done a good job at that."
Wood believes of the five up front, Bell and Pears deserve the most credit for their play thus far.
"For as criticized as they were in the preseason to respond like that and play so well in so many five receiver sets they've played well," said Wood. "Inside we're helping each other a lot of times and we'll slide guards out to help the tackles and Freddy chips and what not, but those guys have been left out on an island with some pretty talented pass rushers these first three weeks and they've done a pretty good job."
As well as they have played, their line coach is still pushing them more than patting them on the back.
"We're doing what we're supposed to do," said D'Alessandris. "We're supposed to block. We're supposed to block in the run game, block in pass protection, that's what we're doing and that's the task for them each week. They know what their role is and their responsibility is and that's what a team is. That's what they're supposed to do and they're making strides each day."