Around the NFL, the third preseason game for individual teams is often regarded as the contest that mimics a regular season tilt the closest. The starters play perhaps as many minutes as they get through the other three preseason games combined, and it's a time for teams to really start some momentum for the regular season.
When the Buffalo Bills take on the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday night at Ralph Wilson Stadium, they'll be looking for steps forward from some of the mediocre performances over the past two weeks.
What are some things to look for now that a pair of positional battles are over? Here are some things to watch for during the contest:
1) Can the offense take a step forward?
- The Bills were in a somewhat similar situation this time last year. Two preseason games in, the first-team offense showed little sparks here and there, but by and large they were a huge work in progress. In their third preseason game at home against Jacksonville, Ryan Fitzpatrick went 11-of-12 for 165 yards and two touchdowns, and the Bills offense exploded for the first time in 2011. That game was the precursor to the team coming out in the regular season with huge offensive outputs to start the year off. The Bills will be looking to get back on that trend against the Steelers, and need their offensive line to help do it. Left guard Andy Levitre told Mark Ludwiczak of CBS that the line isn't where they needed to be at this point in the year. Those in attendance at practice certainly took away the same sentiments with offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris being all over his unit for a lack of execution. It's an important game for the offense to put some solid drives together.
2) Mario Williams watch
- One thing that's been notably absent to this point in the preseason has been the clear and definitive moment to where fans say to themselves "Oh, there's Mario Williams!" While it doesn't work out for everyone (see: Shawne Merriman vs. Chicago in the 2011 preseason opener), it still could put some minds to rest. I think Williams may have been saving himself a bit for the regular season in the first two games. Sometimes it's tough to get fully invested in to a game where you're slated to only play 10-to-20 snaps. This third game could prove to be different with the amount of time he'll get on the field. That moment of clarity could be on the way.
3) Second-tier WRs fighting for their roster lives
- It's looking like four players are on the roster for sure as far as wide receivers are concerned. Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones, David Nelson and T.J. Graham are no-brainers. Derek Hagan is close to lock territory as well, just with the amount of repetitions he's had with the first-team. One of the second-tier group -- consisting of Ruvell Martin, Naaman Roosevelt, David Clowney and Marcus Easley -- needs to step up in a big way in these final two games. The Bills don't have to keep a sixth wide receiver because they have Brad Smith already on the roster. It's always been a fun story to watch develop as preseason goes on.
4) The battle of the young DEs
- With the Bills releasing Shawne Merriman on Monday, head coach Chan Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix both hinted at a pair of young players at defensive end that have really opened their eyes. One of them is undoubtedly Kyle Moore, which leaves Jarron Gilbert and Robert Eddins to be the other players the duo was talking about. Gilbert has gotten the second-team snaps throughout this past week of practice, but the team still likes Eddins dating back to his time with them last year. Those two could be fighting for a roster spot.
5) Delano Howell's big chance
- I remember standing on the sidelines when the second-team defense took the field against Minnesota and realizing that undrafted free agent Delano Howell was taking reps with that unit for the first time to my knowledge. Howell, a Stanford product, went on to have his most productive day as a member of the Bills. I think he has a big opportunity in these last two contests to make a strong case to make the 53-man roster outright. At this point, I believe he's on the outside looking in. However, a couple of strong performances could snatch one of the bubble spots. It's a big opportunity for the young safety.