To conclude their five-day stay in Pennsylvania, the Buffalo Bills meet the same team that they’ve seen on the practice field for two days in the past week. The Bills will take part in their third preseason game, their last exhibition contest on the road in 2014 and finalize their series with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As their practices with the Steelers wrapped up on Thursday, quarterback EJ Manuel had one of his best sessions as a professional athlete. Once again, Manuel will be one of the focal points along with four other things to watch in the upcoming preseason game:
1) Can EJ’s unit get a touchdown?
- In the team’s first preseason contest versus the New York Giants, the starting offense got their feet wet with a pair of uninspiring drives. EJ Manuel completed only two passes and it riled up nerves for some fans of the team. In their second preseason game against Carolina, Manuel looked much more comfortable in the pocket and finished the day with nine successful completions, two of which that went for significant gains (28 and 32 yards). The common theme between both outings, though, resides in the fact that the first-team offense of the Bills failed to convert any of their drives into one that ended in a touchdown. In the preseason, nothing is really a necessity for the first-team offense to accomplish, but it will still allow them to feel comfortable with finishing off a drive before they get to their first regular season contest in September. It’s a marker that both Manuel and head coach Doug Marrone would like to cross off.
2) Richardson nailing down RG job?
- All along the offensive line there are still more questions than answers. Will left tackle Cordy Glenn return to the lineup before the start of the season? Will left guard Chris Williams improve from his average play through training camp and the first two preseason games? Is Cyrus Kouandjio or Seantrel Henderson going to push for the starting right tackle job? Lastly, who will be the starting right guard? The answers to all of these questions, for the time being, are unknown. However, the Bills could be getting closer to finalizing the last of that list due to the current injury to Williams. In past practices, rookie Cyril Richardson would fill in at left guard while Kraig Urbik would get all the starting snaps at right guard. That trend has changed, however, and the difference could be notable. Williams has sat out each of the past two practices and the Bills decided on Richardson getting all the first-team reps at right guard. The team has been trying to find someone to replace Urbik in the starting lineup since the end of last season, and perhaps the latest decision in practice time could mean the rookie is close to earning the role. With a successful game against the Steelers, he could go a long way in securing that starting position.
3) Hogan vs. Woods: Round Two
- Over the past two weeks the first-team offense has sported the trio of receivers that included rookie Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams and, surprisingly, camp standout Chris Hogan as the slot receiver. Left out of that starting mix is second-year wideout Robert Woods, who many expected to play a substantial role for the team in 2014. Unlike against the Giants, Woods did get some time with the first unit in both the practices leading up to and the actual game versus the Panthers… but as an outside receiver. The Bills have yet to relent in their flirtation with Hogan as the slot receiver for EJ Manuel’s offense, and if it continues into the third preseason game and beyond, perhaps the former ‘Hard Knocks’ star will have a bigger role on the team than anyone would have predicted.
4) First-team defensive dominance
- Through two preseason games, the players that make up the top unit on defense have bought in to Jim Schwartz’s system and have shown impressive results. Over the first two preseason games, the Bills top defense has allowed only 103 yards on 24 plays, one long touchdown and they also forced and recovered a fumble. The majority of those yards came on only the drive against the Panthers that resulted in a Kelvin Benjamin touchdown reception, which showed that the other four series the first-team defense played in came away with elite results. To take their yardage totals a step forward, the first-team run defense — which was a problem area in 2013 — has only allowed 18 yards on 10 carries to designed run plays. They’ll face a good test with a better offensive line than waht they faced last weekend, and two successful running backs that bring a physical nature to the game (Le’Veon Bell and LaGarrette Blount).
5) Defensive tackle depth showdown
- After the first-team defense gets their fill of plays, that’s when the real competition starts in the middle of the defensive line. With the emergence of Landon Cohen as a playmaking defensive tackle, there could be a bit of a fight for a roster spot going on. Should the Bills only elect to keep five defensive tackles, that leaves Corbin Bryant, Stefan Charles, Alan Branch and Cohen as four players looking for three spots on the 53-man roster. The team could ultimately decide to keep six at the position, but that will be totally dependent on the play of those four linemen and if they are all worthy of being kept on the roster. Either way, keep a close eye in the second half on that heavy-set quartet.