The following are some observations made (in no particular order) after watching the Bills hold on desperately to secure their first victory of the preseason last night, 20-18. The game featured typical preseason fare; rusty routes, inconsistent blocking by offensive guards, a missed field goal, and improved special teams play until the end of the game when they lost the ball to Carolina after an on-side kick.
Fortunately, the lesser known of the Clemson contingent, Jonathan Meeks intercepted a pass to end the game and preserve the victory for the Bills. Although it was ‘just’ a preseason game, it was exciting to watch for several reasons.
Depth Along Defensive Line
Be sure to keep your eye on Randell Johnson (#93, 6’4”, 245 lbs) as the preseason progresses. Although he is still somewhat raw, the Bills seventh round draft pick looked strong in his overall performance in the game. He’s explosive, and has a nose for the ball.
There will be at least one defensive line player released by the Bills that could start on many other NFL teams this season. Pepper Johnson certainly has a happy problem, and appears to have cultivated a nasty group of uglies who will wreak havoc around the NFL this season. The defensive line of the Bills might be one of the most talented groups that I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness.
Schwartz reiterated his desire to use his four-man fronts to pressure opposing quarterbacks, and after two preseason games, he definitely figured out how to do so. This front four of the Bills will be fierce with very little drop off from top to bottom of the rotation. If the goal was to improve this defense against the run, for the most part it was “mission accomplished.”
Marrone Is Trying To Be Patient With Young Offensive Linemen
Marrone made a remark during his post-game press conference about how difficult it is to transition from college to the NFL for offensive tackles after being asked about Cyrus Kouandjio’s progress. He said it takes time, and his awareness of the nuances of the position come from both playing and coaching. Marrone spends significant time at camp working with the offensive line.
This should pay dividends as the season progresses. Watching both good and bad offensive line play over the years has made me have a better appreciation for this very specialized craft.
At times it seems like Marrone wishes he could put on the pads and go for it. They are very much his labor of love. This young group remains a work in progress, and it appears (at least for the moment) that Marrone is going to take a patient approach with this group, for now.
Defense Creating Turnovers
While many Bills fans are wringing their hands wondering how much the change from Pettine to Schwartz will impact the rate of turnovers, the Bills defense just keeps on creating them.
The most encouraging sign is the fact that all three units; the defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs are all contributing to creating turnovers. Once again Da’Norris Searcy came up big with a pick at a crucial time in the game.
The Bills defensive backfield has also quietly acquired a decent amount of depth. Donnie Henderson is showing us why Marrone refused to let Pettine take Henderson with him to Cleveland. This unit is maturing nicely, and even with Leodis out of the line up, the Bills secondary did an admirable job frustrating the Panthers quarterbacks.
EJ Manuel Showing Steady Signs of Progress
While some fans are ready to throw in the towel on Manuel, they better hope they don’t get their wish by having Jeff Tuel start any games yet. Outside of the desperate tight end situation, the quarterback position is perilously thin behind Manuel. Tuel is developing but is nowhere near ready to step in and be counted on to lead this team to victory.
Manuel’s footwork significantly improved in this game, as did his decision-making and timing. He distributed the ball to almost every receiver at one point or another, and his long ball is getting better in terms of accuracy. There’s almost a feeling that he is about to connect the dots and begin seeing the big picture on the field.
Scott Chandler Way Behind, Tight End Situation Is A Mess
The groin injury that sidelined Scott Chandler has clearly stunted his development at camp. He is now just getting eased back into the lineup. He dropped a critical pass in the red zone that would have been a momentum changer in the game last night and several at camp practices this past week.
Lee Smith is barely adequate, but can block, and Tony Moeaki cannot seem to stay on the field without sustaining an injury. This is clearly a position of critical need at this point, and it remains possible that they may address the problem by acquiring a tight end off another roster.
You Can Open Both Eyes And Breathe While Watching Special Teams Again
Last season reminded me of the year that Wade Phillips lost his job because he would not fire Ronnie Jones. I was literally back to closing my eyes and holding my breath every time they touched the ball. Like many others, I was ready for Crossman to be fired after the season, and was concerned when he was retained.
Turns out Marrone may have been right when he blamed a severe lack of special teams talent as the main reason for the struggle. Emphasizing special teams skills in the draft has already paid dividends and we aren’t even half way through the preseason at this point.
Penalties Are Down And The Discipline Is Paying Off
Every time the hanky was thrown last night, I expected the call to go against the Bills. It’s part of watching preseason football. After becoming used to at least ten flags being thrown, the Bills only committed five fouls the entire game.
This is even more remarkable when you consider that the offensive line is still being shuffled around, and Cordy Glenn has yet to play or practice. Seantrel Henderson is steadily improving, and Kouandjio is slowly progressing. You can definitely see why Henderson would have been an early round pick in the draft had he not gotten into trouble with his off the field behavior.
The young offensive lineman will likely continue to develop in a volatile manner, occasionally whiffing on a play here and there. Chris Williams was less than impressive at the left guard position last night. In fact, both guard positions do not appear to be settled at the moment. I also noticed Chris Hairston playing left tackle with the back ups later in the game.
The Importance Of Winning The Game
You can see that this team is being coached to believe that winning is the number one priority over anything else. This comment is echoed throughout the team, from top to bottom of the roster. It’s not a small thing to see the Bills win a preseason game that easily could have gotten away from them on several occasions.
When the Bills failed to gain possession of the ball after the on-side kick, you could hear a collective gasp across Bills Nation. The “here we go again” chorus was warming up in the background when Jonathan Meeks stepped in and put an end to the fear of letting another game slip away.
Overall, this game was a good one for most players as far as building a foundation which to improve upon. Next week the scrimmage work at Latrobe, PA with the Steelers should also give us a clue about where this team fares compared to another AFC rival. The trend line looks good at the moment, but this team is still young and inconsistent.