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CHICAGO — Maybe call him "Lights Out 2.0."
There's only so much stock you can put in a preseason game, especially the first preseason game following a lockout that kept teams from having minicamps and OTAs. But in his first on-field action since October 2010, Merriman looked like his old self.
"The understatement of the evening: I thought Merriman was impressive tonight," said head coach Chan Gailey in his opening remarks.
The phrase "take it with a grain of salt" could have been invented for preseason football games. Once you get past the fact that it was the preseason opener and that he rushed against a Bears offensive line that allowed a league-leading 56 sacks last season, you can appreciate Merriman's early impact in his first game in a Bills uniform. He recorded back-to-back sacks of Bears QB Caleb Hanie in the first quarter of Saturday night's preseason opener.
"We're going to take it slow. With him, it's September 11, it's not now," Gailey said. "We'll work him in a little more next week. He hadn't played in a couple years. He was very impressive rushing the passer."
Merriman played nine snaps. On two of those snaps, he brought the quarterback to the turf. In another, he tackled Bears RB Chester Taylor after a three-yard gain. And Merriman can get some credit for rookie DE Marcell Dareus' first NFL sack. On the play, Merriman was getting to Jay Cutler, but was held by J'Marcus Webb. Dareus got the sack, the penalty was declined.
"I'm still getting the feel of a game. This is going to be a long process," Merriman said after the game. "You're never going to take the athleticism and the ability to want to make plays away from someone, even if I've been away for a year and a half."
In pre-game warm-ups, Merriman was visibly the most amped player on the field. Jumping up and down and firing up his teammates as if it was a playoff game. He carried that onto the field. In fact, Bears OLT J'Marcus Webb admitted that he didn't match Merriman's intensity on the field.
"He came out as if it were a regular-season game," Webb said.
"That's the way I approach every game," said Merriman.
But before the game?
"I was excited. I felt like a rookie," he said with the smile of a rookie who just made his debut. "I couldn't tell them before the game because I heard young guys saying they were nervous."
All Bills fans wanted to see was for Merriman to stay healthy and maybe make an early impact. He certainly, albeit for one night, made Buffalo feel good about the decision to stick with Merriman.
The Bills' brass has made it abundantly clear they are confident that Merriman can be "Lights Out" again. Not only did they not draft an outside linebacker, they addressed just about every defensive position besides pass rusher. The position was ignored in free agency, as well.
Pretty gutsy for a team tied for 27th in the league last season with 27 sacks.
"When they didn't draft anyone last year (after) I re-signed, I knew they had the confidence in me to get back to where I needed to be in order to go out and play at the level that they needed," said Merriman. "And that's all I ask for. A little confidence and faith in me going out and getting things done."
Just a fraction of what Merriman once was would be an upgrade in Buffalo. Last year, the Bills had a variety of players at the outside linebacker position, and Chris Kelsay led the group with just 3½ sacks.
If Saturday night's game was any indication, the Bills made the right choice. "Lights Out 2.0" isn't necessarily a better version than what we saw earlier in his career as a dominant pass rusher in San Diego. It's different, and Merriman is the first to admit it.
"That's 2007. Those Pro Bowls don't mean anything at this point. I want to get back to playing the best way that I play football," he said. "That's not having 12, 17 sacks, it's to go out and be an enforcer, an impact player that they need in order to go out and help us win."
The digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL preview magazine is now available in The PFW Store. This product was completed after the lockout ended and free-agent signings and player trades are reflected in the 32 team previews.