It’s tough to judge much of anything about how good an NFL team will be based off of preseason, much less one preseason game. However, Buffalo Bills fans do have a case for some cautious optimism based off their performance against the Indianapolis Colts.
After last year’s preseason offensive debacle where the Bills’ starting offense didn’t score a single touchdown, seeing rookie quarterback EJ Manuel orchestrate a precision two-minute drill and cap it with a touchdown strike is a breath of relief. Seeing fellow rookie QB Jeff Tuel lighting up the Colts’ backups in the second half made for a lot of fun. Seeing star running back CJ Spiller pick up from where he left off (minus the fumble on the hand off) is promising as well.
With quarterback Kevin Kolb sidelined this week, Manuel had a chance to really leave a mark on this quarterback competition. He was not stellar, but he never had the deer in the headlights look that we would all admit we feared if pressed enough. He looked completely in control on that two-minute drive, which was a very good sign. For a rookie quarterback to face his first two-minute drill having to drive nearly the entire length of the field, Manuel was decisive, accurate, and smart. His lone incompletion was nullified by a defensive holding penalty, but even that incompletion was smart. He rolled out to his left, had pressure in his face and no open targets, and he promptly deposited the ball three rows deep.
Manuel threw the ball away twice in the game in situations that preserved offensive chances. The other time was on the third down in the red zone. Rather than forcing the ball into tight coverage or taking a sack by holding onto the ball too long, he threw the ball out of the back of the end zone. He improved as the game went along and he never made any big mistakes. Manuel didn’t blow anyone away, but he never looked out of place. That third-down scramble was a beauty too.
On the defensive side of the ball, the difference from last year to this year is stark. Even though there were some missteps (cornerback Ron Brooks letting Colts receiver TY Hilton getting wide open for a long TD), the defense as a whole was impressive. They were surprisingly aggressive for preseason, bringing rushers from the linebacker corps and the safeties occasionally. Players were also delivering big hits that the defense has seemingly lacked for a few years. Brooks delivered a big hit to Colts tight end Coby Fleener to force a fumble. Aaron Williams, switching from cornerback to safety, sent running back Donald Brown flying to force an incomplete pass and got the defense off the field on third down.
It was also very nice to see a linebacker able to run with an opposing tight end and break up a touchdown pass. Just as Fleener brought in a pass for a touchdown, rookie Kiko Alonso delivered a nice punch to the ball to force an incomplete pass. Too often the Bills have been burned by tight ends. Hopefully Alonso can halt that trend.
It would be impossible to ignore the special teams contribution in this game as well. Rookie wide receiver Marquise Goodwin gave everyone a glimpse of what he can do when he nearly broke his first return attempt but got tripped up close to midfield. No one was going to trip him up on his second return. Thirteen seconds from seven yards deep in his own endzone to the opposite goal line. The blocking was superb on both returns. The kick coverage units were very good too. Multiple times Colts returners were stopped well short of their 20 yard line.
All in all, one Buffalo Bills preseason game is not going to determine how far these Bills are going to go this season. A team is never as good as it looks in preseason, nor is it rarely as bad as it looks. However, Bills fans do have reason for cautious optimism. The Bills take to the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Friday night against the Minnesota Vikings. Hopefully fans will have even more reasons to be optimistic after that game.