On Saturday night, it will have been 36 days since the Buffalo Bills checked into training camp on the campus at St. John Fisher College, and they will only be playing in their first preseason home game of the summer. As they leave Pittsford on Saturday, they won’t return until 2015 because camp will have finally, and mercifully, broken for the year.
When they do return home, they’ll be immediately greeted at Ralph Wilson Stadium by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for their fourth exhibition contest in 2014. It’s the biggest preseason game of the year for the starting players on the roster, and here’s why in addition to other story lines to monitor as the game progresses:
1) The dress rehearsal
- In most any other year the fourth game in the NFL preseason is meant for the backups, as their last attempts to try and make the final roster. This year is different for the Bills. Due to the participation in the 2014 Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, they were given a total of five preseason games which pinpoints Saturday as the circled date on the exhibition calendar for their starters. Head coach Doug Marrone, as he has been all preseason, wasn’t all that forthcoming with his playing time plans for both his starting offense and defense. Quarterback EJ Manuel assumed that they would get the full first half and a bit into the third quarter due to precedents set around the league for the second-to-last game. Not only from a playing time perspective, but Saturday is important to the team because they spent the whole week preparing like they would in the regular season. They did some film study, they ran scout team against their top units and they’re looking to exploit mismatches. Even more than the other ones, this preseason game is likely quite important to Marrone and his opinion on the team’s progress.
2) Pressure to score six
- Part of the progress lies within the performance of the first-team offense. Now three games and 10 drives in, EJ Manuel and his first-unit offensive brethren have failed to get the ball into the end zone. They have been close, missing on a jump ball to Mike Williams against the New York Giants and then getting stuffed at the goal line by both the Carolina Panthers and Pittsburgh Steelers. They’ll face a stiff test against an underrated Buccaneers defense — specifically with a couple of their defensive linemen against the Bills’ offensive line — to attempt to finally put an end to the drought. Manuel displayed extreme confidence in the offense being able to score a touchdown. “I think it’s going to come this Saturday,” he said. “I think we will get that touchdown before I’m out, so we’ll see.”
3) The brand new O-Line
- Much to the delight of both coaches and fans, left tackle Cordy Glenn returned to team drills this week and appears primed to be ready for the start of the regular season. Glenn took most the snaps with the first team through the week, which transitioned rookie Seantrel Henderson over to the right side of the offensive line. That move then shifted Erik Pears inside to right guard, taking over a position that has seen as much turnover as any over the course of training camp. Center (Eric Wood) and left guard (Chris Williams) remained unaffected by the Glenn return, but there is enough there to see just how the new parts will react in a game. Doug Marrone has to be getting close to a decision on what the front five will look like for the start of the regular season, and this could be the combination if all goes well.
4) Graham playing safety?
- The past week in practice has brought a new role to cornerback Corey Graham. The team started their cross-training efforts with Graham at safety and maintained that they still like him at cornerback as well. It could be nothing more than for the exact reasoning the Bills originally stated, just to get him comfortable at the position in their defensive scheme... but the timing is at least a little noteworthy. Against the Steelers, safeties Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams struggled in coverage and it led to a 76-yard touchdown, and many other opportunities through the air for Ben Roethlisberger. If Graham plays safety this week only and does so in the game, but then shifts back to cornerback next week, then it was a move with innocent intentions. If he stays there into next week, though, there could be something more to it. Keep an eye on his performance.
5) Sammy’s home debut might have to wait
- The Bills survived a mini-scare last Saturday after first-round wideout Sammy Watkins left the Steelers game with an injury to his ribs, but that isn’t stopping them from being cautious with their prized rookie. Watkins took it easy at practice this week, sitting out Monday, getting back on Tuesday and Wednesday with a very light workload and then doing only slightly more on Thursday. It might disappoint fans who were looking forward to seeing him in person, but his availability for the regular season is of utmost importance. As of Thursday, both Watkins and starting cornerback Leodis McKelvin (groin) were not yet cleared to play. At wideout, the trio of Mike Williams, Robert Woods and Chris Hogan will dominate the first-team snaps at receiver if Watkins can't play as it's expected.