Friday, August 3, 2007

The Dog Days of Summer

I took the night off from parenting last night (Will was home with a sitter) and drove to Pittsford, NY to check out training camp. It's about an hour-and-a-half drive from Buffalo if you're going around the speed limit, which is probably a good idea because the cops love hiding out behind the trees on this particular stretch of highway.

Anyway, when I pulled out of my driveway at 5 p.m., the temperature outside was 95 degrees. As I inched my way towards Pittsford, the temp steadily climbed. When I got out of the car at about 6:50 p.m., it was 102 degrees! Needless to say, me and some of the other wives glistened (because we don't sweat - we glow) for two hours while our guys were pounding it out on the field. Can you even imagine what that must be like for them? I almost pass out on the treadmill in an air-conditioned gym after running for half-an-hour. No wonder Ryan can lose about ten pounds in any given practice.

Anyway, he's doing great. He looked awesome, fast and sharp last night. He's tired, but that comes with being in camp. Here's an article from today's Buffalo News...

Bills’ TEs doing one ‘H’ of a job
Cieslak, Neufeldthrive in backfield
Updated: 08/03/07 7:03 AM

PITTSFORD — Fullbacks are a dying breed. Only a few NFL teams still use them and others have phased them out altogether.
The Buffalo Bills determined the true fullback was obsolete by declining to re-sign Daimon Shelton after last season. The Bills may not be using a fullback anymore, but they haven’t eliminated the fullback role.

The Bills are now using tight ends to do that work. Some people refer to this position as H-back.

They won’t be used as ball carriers, but neither are most fullbacks around the league. In fact, Shelton had just one rushing attempt in 46 games during his

three years with the Bills.

“The fullbacks around the league rarely carry the ball anymore,” offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said after practice Thursday at St. John Fisher College. “They’re pass protectors and run blockers. They’re tight end type guys anyway.”

The Bills brought six tight ends to training camp. Fairchild said all of the Bills’ tight ends can play in the backfield or be sent in motion towards the play side. Robert Royal is a ferocious blocker, but Fairchild said Royal and Kevin Everett will be used more on the line of scrimmage.

Ryan Neufeld and Brad Cieslak are the prime candidates to work out of the backfield. Matt Murphy and rookie Derek Schouman are in the mix, too.

Though Neufeld (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) and Cieslak (6-3, 253) are not as big as the 6-foot, 262-pound Shelton, they have the right body type to be lead blockers. Blocking out of the backfield is different than doing it on the line of scrimmage. Neufeld and Cieslak are taller than the average fullback, so they must be technically sound.

“Coming from the backfield, you’ve really got to be a lot lower, and you’ve got to be coming through there with a lot of speed to be able to bump off some of those guys,” Cieslak said. “On the line, it is about pad level but being under control as you’re coming through it ’cause it’s not college. You’re not going to blow people off 20 yards back. Coming from the backfield, the main thing is just being willing to stick your head in there.”

Shelton often joked that he used to be taller before becoming a human battering ram. Fullbacks are often asked to go on kamikaze missions into the line to blast open holes. No problem, Neufeld said.

“I’m fine with that because my whole career I’ve been sent on kamikaze missions going down on kickoff coverage,” he said. “So it is no big thing.”

Seeing what Neufeld and Cieslak have done as blockers in the past helped lead to the Bills’ shift in philosophy.

Neufeld did some work out of the backfield at UCLA, as an NFL rookie in Dallas and with the Bills in 2003. He also stepped in at fullback when Shelton was hurt in a Sept. 24 game against the Jets last season.

“We kind of threw him in there before he had enough reps, but he had a nice feel for it,” Fairchild said.

Cieslak replaced an injured Shelton in a Week 14 game against Miami last year and started the last two games, splitting time at tight end and fullback.

He played a similar role at Northern Illinois, so the transition wasn’t too difficult.

“I think playing in the backfield will be great for our position as a whole,” Cieslak said. “It will give us a lot more chances to get on the field. We’ve got a really talented group, and we can do a lot of good things out there.”

Variety is what Fairchild is looking for. The Bills want to get their tight ends more involved offensively. By using them in the backfield, Fairchild expects the offense to have more flexibility and allow him to use different formations with the same personnel. It also will keep defenses guessing.

In previous years, teams knew the Bills were probably going to run or pass depending on whether Shelton was part of the two-back set or not. With the tight end in the backfield, defenses won’t be able to anticipate what the Bills are going to do on every snap.

The tight end’s presence in the backfield can free rookie running back Marshawn Lynch from pass blocking and allow him to use his considerable receiving skills. In some passing situations, the tight end will swing out of the backfield and become another target for quarterback J.P. Losman.

“It will keep defenses guessing because Brad and I can do multiple things,” Neufeld said. “If you have a true fullback, defenses can kind of narrow down what’s coming. Whereas if the tight end is back there they don’t know if it’s a run or pass because we can do fullback stuff as far as lead blocking and pass protection as well as be a receiving threat out of the backfield.”

Training camp is only one week old, but Fairchild sees the tight ends’ new role taking shape.

“We know all of our tight ends are good receivers,” he said. “We’re trying to get a feel for what they can do as far as the run game from that position. It’s going good. I like what I see so far.”

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