The Buffalo Bills got on to the practice field 30 minutes later than expected on Friday night, but they were able to get in a solid evening of work ahead of their initial preseason game.
It was a bit of a shorter practice with the team only in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts, but they took a good portion of time during team drills to work on their red zone offense and defense. Even with an abbreviated session, there were still some standouts during the day:
Manuel sharp in red zone, 2 minute sputters
- In the final practice before his 2014 debut, EJ Manuel and the Bills tried to build some momentum in an area that they struggled with last season. The red zone deficiencies of 2013 are well-documented, and it was a focal point of Friday’s session for the team’s offense specifically. In their first time doing the red zone drill, Manuel had a stretch of three straight attempts that resulted in a touchdown. The second-year quarterback found Robert Woods twice and Chris Gragg once for the solid three-play stretch, with his best effort coming on the last of those three. Manuel went through his first and second reads on that specific play, scanned the field and kept an eye on the closing pressure, then spotted an open Woods in the middle of the end zone at the last moment and got him the ball. That’s the type of development the Bills are looking for in that area. In the two-minute drill to end practice, the Bills found a nice hookup between Manuel and Mike Williams to keep the drive alive on a fourth and long, but outside of that play the offense barely got anything going due to both inaccurate throws and collapsing pockets.
Hairston back, no longer at guard
- With Chris Hairston getting back on the field, the Bills decided to give him a look somewhere else along the offensive line. Since training camp has started, Hairston has been exclusively at right guard and splitting first-team reps with Kraig Urbik. The plan has appeared to change shortly before their upcoming preseason game. On Friday, the Bills put Hairston at a position in which most are used to seeing him, using him as the second-team left tackle behind rookie Seantrel Henderson. In his place at guard, rookie Cyril Richardson resumed his role of splitting the first-team snaps at right guard with Urbik. Hairston is trying to find a home anywhere along the offensive line, and if he can prove valuable enough as a swing lineman, he may have a shot to be on the correct side of the roster bubble.
Tight end depth for Sunday
- The return of Lee Smith to practice on Friday signaled that the Bills could be alright on Sunday with how much time they need to allocate to each player. Smith will likely be with the first team, but they know what type of player he is. Expect the majority of snaps to go to second-year player Chris Gragg and the recently signed Dominique Jones. Another player that could get some time on the field at tight end is Evan Rodriguez, who has worked mostly at fullback throughout training camp. He took some reps with Smith, Gragg and Jones during routes versus air. With Chandler and Moeaki sidelined on Friday night, it’s unlikely that they’ll suit up on Sunday.
Mike Williams has strong day
- Throughout camp thus far it’s been either rookie Sammy Watkins or wideout Chris Hogan getting all the praise for their efforts, but Mike Williams stole the show from that position on Friday. The oldest wideout on the roster, Williams showed his high-pointing ability on more than one occasion, mixing it with smooth route running during one-on-one drills. He looks quite healthy and the Bills are depending on all the aforementioned attributes to give them something their roster has been missing for a while now: a bonafide red zone target.
Starting corners rested
- Head coach Doug Marrone continued his line of thinking in being cautious with his starting cornerbacks. Both Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin did not take a single snap on defense during Friday’s team drills, a precaution likely taken because both had offseason procedures done. McKelvin hasn’t taken a single rep in team drills over the course of the past week, so it’s likely that he won’t be available for the Bills’ upcoming contest. Gilmore has only gotten a rest day here or there, so his availability may be a bit more likely. Marrone did not specify if either player would play in the Hall of Fame game Sunday.
Day 11 MVP: CB Nickell Robey
- The player that barely edged out Mike Williams for most valuable player honors on Friday night was perhaps the smallest on the field. The play of second-year nickel corner Nickell Robey was among the best to end the week of practice. He chipped in two interceptions, a knocked down pass on a blitz attempt and a few separate passes knocked down in coverage. He allowed one completion to wide receiver Caleb Holley on a sharply thrown pass by Jeff Tuel. Besides that, Robey gave up nothing and continued to be a thorn in the side of the offense.
Day 11 LVP: QB Thad Lewis
- The struggles continued for Lewis on Friday in the form of inaccurate throws that resulted in turnovers once again. Normally there isn’t too great of a disparity between Lewis and Tuel, despite some of the former’s shortcomings throughout the start of camp. However, Friday brought one of Tuel’s best performances at camp to date, and coupled with Lewis’ continuous misfires, it created some space in the battle to be the backup to EJ Manuel.
Up Next: The Bills have a walkthrough scheduled for Saturday morning, then fly out to Canton, Ohio for their first preseason game. They’ll take on the New York Giants Sunday night at 8 pm.