In 2011 Buffalo's offensive line quietly posted the fifth best yards per carry average in the NFL and was first in sacks allowed. It was a sign of things to come in 2012. It's only been two games, but Buffalo leads the league in rushing, yards per carry average and is the only team in the league that has not surrendered a sack. Simply put the Bills offensive line has arrived.
"Our offensive line, I'm excited about them," said Bills GM Buddy Nix. "We've got young players and they're talented and they play good together. Trust me that is a slow process to get that done. I think there will be some things they can improve on and they'll get better as the year goes on. That's the encouraging thing to me."
When Nix was hired as General Manager, he had a pair of young building blocks for his the offensive line in 2009 first-round pick Eric Wood and second-round selection Andy Levitre. With so many holes at other positions, Nix chose to scour the waiver wire for offensive line help while addressing other needs in the draft.
He and his personnel staff were able to add Chad Rinehart and Kraig Urbik, each former third-round choices and sign free agent veteran Erik Pears. Chris Hairston was added as a fourth-rounder in 2011, and second-round pick Cordy Glenn looks like the last piece to what has shaped up to be a promising group.
"Anytime you stockpile some draft picks into the offensive line, and then you bring in an experienced guy like Pears you've assembled a decent group," said Wood. "We had a lot of turnover in the first couple of years I was here. It's great that we've now had the same group around for the past couple of years. To have the organization committed to a group definitely means a lot to us and we want to perform because of that."
In 2010, head coach Chan Gailey and D'Alessandris saw an offensive line that was limited in terms of execution. Following that season there was a concerted effort to improve as a screen team, an area where timing and mobility are critical. The line made great strides in this area while also sharpening an inside-zone run game that became their bread and butter.
Still, the offense leaned heavily on a timing passing game to consistently move the football putting the line in pass protection a lot. Ryan Fitzpatrick ranked sixth in the league in pass attempts in 2011 (569), but the unit held up surrendering just 23 sacks, a league low.
Fast forward to 2012 and the only new addition is Glenn, and the left tackle has blended in well. It looks as though he's well on his way to being a definitive answer at the line's most important position.
"He's come in here with a great attitude from day one," said offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris. "Since we drafted him he's come in here, learned the information, learned the terminology, learned new technique, new fundamentals. He comes out every day to apply himself. He works hard. I've seen steady growth every day and I think I'm going to continue to see steady growth with this young man."
The only other difference is Hairston is rotating in with a recovering Pears at right tackle. While the line's Week 1 performance was encouraging, the way in which Gailey depended on them to establish the run in Week 2 spoke volumes. Running the ball on each of the team's first five first downs in the game was an approach that hadn't been seen in the two previous seasons on Gailey's watch.
"It meant a lot to us in the room," said Hairston. "It's always good as offensive linemen to turn in a good game and do what we can to help this team get a win."
"I give a lot of credit to those guys, but to Joe D'Alessandris as well," said Gailey. "He does a great job of making sure those guys are on the same page. They're working together as a unit communicating extremely well right now. They've given us two excellent performances really in the last two weeks. We've got to continue to use them and what their abilities allow us to do."
What has helped the unit jell so effectively is the businesslike approach that all of them share. There's a blue collar mentality that permeates the group.
"That's what's been great," said D'Alessandris. "Coming in here my first year and us all growing together, player-coach, coach-player and the second year having some success and it's from them. I have great young men to work with every day. They come out with a great attitude, they work very hard. They pay attention in meetings. They do exactly what's asked. It's a bright future for us."
Their success has led to added confidence and a bit of an attitude. This past Sunday Buffalo's offensive linemen came to the defense of C.J. Spiller and other teammates when Kansas City defenders tried some extracurricular activity at the end of plays in what was a lopsided game.
"We're not just going to sit back and take it," said Wood of the alleged cheap shots. "We've got a physical group up front and if they want to take shots at us, we're going to give it back."
"It's nice to see them getting some credit, but they were nasty out there," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "They've done a pretty outstanding job the first two games."
"If we can keep everybody healthy and on the field for an entire year, there's no telling how good this offensive line can be," said Gailey. "They're a big strong physical group. They're a young group overall. This could be a really good line before it's over with."
While all the accolades are nice, Buffalo's linemen would prefer to keep their head down for now and continue to plow ahead in the hopes of looking up at the end of the season and seeing a postseason reward for the work put in.
"We played well when we were healthy last year and we're hoping to do it again this year," said Wood. "At the same time we're trying to keep perspective. It's just been two games out of 16."