ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- When the Buffalo Bills addressed their most crying need on the offensive line, they didn't follow conventional wisdom that said it was all about filling a gaping hole at tackle.
They followed the logic that the key to success in the AFC East, where every team except the Bills uses a 3-4 defense, is coping with the dominant nose tackles in the rest of the division -- Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots, Kris Jenkins of the New York Jets, and Jason Ferguson of the Miami Dolphins.
The inability to do so went a long way toward Buffalo going 0-6 in the division and missing the playoffs for the ninth year in a row last season. So, instead of simply replacing Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters after he forced a trade to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bills addressed what they considered an even greater need: Making the interior of their offensive line better, stronger, and a whole lot tougher.
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"Those guys are powerful guys, but they're athletic guys," Bills offensive line coach Sean Kugler said of Wilfork, Jenkins, and Ferguson during the team's recent rookie camp. "They're outstanding athletes and they play with a motor. So you need powerful guys that match that intensity and play with an equal motor. And that's what we're trying to get to."
The Bills took the first major step in that direction in free agency by signing fifth-year veteran center Geoff Hangartner from the Carolina Panthers. Then they took two additional big steps by selecting a pair of guards in the draft -- first-rounder Eric Wood, who played center at Louisville, and second-rounder Andy Levitre, who played tackle at Oregon State.
Their plan is to start Hangartner and the rookies (Levitre was at left guard and Wood at right guard during the rookie camp) while moving Langston Walker from right tackle to replace Peters and moving Brad Butler from right guard to replace Walker.
The common trait among Hangartner, Wood and Levitre is that, in addition to being highly intelligent, they're physical and play with a nastiness that should serve them well when tangling with the brute force and aggressiveness Wilfork, Jenkins, and Ferguson display on a regular basis. The Bills routinely saw the interior of their offensive line collapse in division games in 2008; Jenkins tossed blockers around like stuffed dolls when the Jets played at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
They expect that to change in 2009.
"In a 3-4 division, the inside three (offensive linemen) set the tempo," Kugler said.
Hangartner, whose score was among the highest in intelligence testing at the 2005 NFL Scouting Combine, plays with considerable intensity. At 6-foot-5 and 301 pounds, he moves exceptionally well and should be able to match the athleticism of the nose tackles he'll face in the division. "And (when it comes to) just getting guys lined up," Kugler said, "he's got that demeanor you're looking for as far as that O-line mentality and the guys kind of respond to him."
In Wood's final two seasons at Louisville, he was credited with more than 180 knockdowns, which wasn't easy from the center position where he was attempting to get his 310-pound frame under defensive tackles weighing at least as much, if not more. Wood played with a simple philosophy. The moment the tackle tried to get separation on a running play, he would "dump him in the dirt." And if the tackle left his feet to try and get his hands in front of a pass, he was "going to hit the ground."
At 6-2, Levitre isn't tall enough to play tackle in the NFL. However, he does pack a great deal of power into a thick, 305-pound frame. Combined with his quickness, he shouldn't have any problem converting to guard, where he has seen a little bit of action and also worked briefly at the Senior Bowl.
For Levitre, regardless of where he lines up, it's all about the mindset of establishing a "new line of scrimmage" on each play.
"When we get out on the line, our job is to get those guys moving backwards," he said. "I feel we have the competitive capability of getting the job done on game day. Whoever wins those battles throughout the day is going to usually end up winning the game."
That's where the nastiness comes in.
The Bills' coaches and talent evaluators were tired of what they saw as a passive mentality up front. They were especially frustrated with watching the offense too often fail to convert in short-yardage situations, despite having quality running backs in Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. They determined they needed blockers who would provide far more than an initial surge.
They wanted "finishers," and that's precisely what they expect Wood and Levitre to be.
"You see it on film," Kugler said. "The film's rolling and these guys are still playing through the whistle, sometimes beyond, and they're at a different tempo than all the other guys that you see on film. We felt we got the two best finishers in the draft and we're pretty excited about that."
Wood and Levitre are equally excited about the opportunity to take on three of the NFL's best nose tackles six times this season.
"You play in this league to compete against the best, and what better division to be in than (one that allows you to) go against Kris Jenkins, Vince Wilfork, and Jason Ferguson," Wood said. "That's what we're here to do. It's going to be fun."