The Buffalo Bills put their best effort into bringing a second victory back to New York with them in the preseason, but a slow start by both the first-team offense and defense inevitably ruined their chances. The team concluded their five-day stay in Pennsylvania with a 19-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On Thursday night, just two days ahead of the game, Bills quarterback EJ Manuel had one of his best practices as a professional football player. Was he able to capitalize on that performance and implement it into the game setting? Here are some reactions from the Bills’ most recent contest:
- Five drives, no touchdowns. Heck, let’s take it a step farther. Three games, 10 total drives, no touchdowns. That is the stat line that bogs down the first-team offense with quarterback EJ Manuel at the helm. They haven’t managed to scrounge up anything more than a field goal to conclude a drive, leaving most frustrated by their inability to do so in a meaningless, exhibition contest. On Saturday, the inconsistent version of Manuel was seen and it cost the Bills on more than a few separate occasions during their offensive drives. While Manuel wasn’t hesitant, he settled in for a lot of underneath throws to running backs and tight ends, due to (what he said was) the Steelers dropping seven back into coverage. The Steelers likely saw what Manuel did to their defense on Thursday at practice and vowed not to allow any intermediate-to-large gains through the air. The quarterback threw some errant passes, with the interception to Ryan Shazier and the two inaccurate throws on the run being the most glaring ones. He did bring about a pair of very good throws, too. He found Robert Woods on a deep comeback route that Manuel placed on the money along the sidelines with a hearty amount of anticipation laced into the throw. Later on he found T.J. Graham open in some space for a third-down pickup as well. What matters is that the drives stalled deep into Steelers’ territory, which means that the Bills have to figure things out next weekend against Tampa Bay.
- On the first drive of the game, most Bills fans gasped for air when they saw first-round selection and wide receiver Sammy Watkins get injured. When he went to the locker room, there was a very small amount of panic in regards to Watkins, too. The wideout was discovered to have an injury to his ribs, which doesn’t give any indication as to the timetable that he could be out. NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported during the game that Watkins’ rib injury didn’t appear to be serious, although the report wasn’t specific as to when the rookie would return in full. Head coach Doug Marrone wasn’t aware of the severity of the injury and only called it a contusion, but quarterback EJ Manuel said that he thinks Watkins “will be fine.” For now, it’s a wait-and-see approach.
Rush defense continues to shine
- Coming into Saturday night’s contest, the first-team defense allowed only 18 yards on 10 carries of designed run plays combined between the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers. They kept that in tact against the Steelers by allowing just 11 yards on five carries. Granted, the Steelers were moving the ball down the field through the air as they pleased, but the run defense showed once again why this could be a much improved unit. Brandon Spikes, Jerry Hughes, Nigel Bradham and both Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus all contributed to one of the lone bright spots of the evening for the top units.
Pass defense problem?
- If teams aren’t having success in the run department, odds are you know what their countermove will be: they’re going to try and spread the ball around to get the opposition to back off the line of scrimmage. With all the success that the run defense had, the pass defense was left in the dust on Saturday. The Bills had Stephon Gilmore, Corey Graham, Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams as the starting unit, and all four struggled throughout the evening. Gilmore gave up the touchdown in the corner of the end zone to Markus Wheaton, which was his second beat for a score in as many weeks. Graham had the best day of the group as a tackling corner, but he lost a step on Antonio Brown on the 76-yard touchdown which allowed for Duke Williams to run straight into Graham to cancel each other out. On that same play Searcy was slow to recognize both what was happening and what was coming his way, got caught flat-footed and by that point the speedy Brown was already long gone. Some might ask why Aaron Williams wasn’t in with the first-team, but head coach Doug Marrone implored everyone to not read into it. He said the exercise was just to familiarize Duke Williams with the top unit before the season, but the coach remained that Aaron Williams is in fact the starter. The secondary could be an issue if the pass rush isn't there for the Bills, so it's certainly a situation to monitor.
- Question: “Are you satisfied with your backup quarterback play?”
Doug Marrone: “No.”
The look on Marrone’s face paired with the tone of voice he used to answer the question makes one believe that he is not at all happy with how the backup quarterback competition is shaping up. Both Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel have really struggled to discern themselves, with Lewis having the worst camp of the two. That continued on Saturday night with Lewis completing only 1-of-6 passes for 18 yards, and throwing a fairly poor interception to end his day. On the ensuing drive, Tuel came in and was a tad better than Lewis completing 5-of-9 passes for 48 yards, but was also sacked four separate times and lost a fumble to Pittsburgh. Turnovers will drive any coach crazy, especially when it’s the two men trying to be the backup plan for second-year player EJ Manuel. While Tuel will likely stick on the roster regardless of what else happens, the same can’t be said of Lewis. Should the right player become available on the open market the Bills might look to strike to help bring some composure to the position past Manuel. Lewis’ job could be in jeopardy if he doesn’t pick up his play… and quickly.
- At the beginning of the offseason, the Buffalo Bills signed defensive tackle Alan Branch to a contract extension and thought he would serve as the top substitute for Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. That idea, like the very contract that kept Branch in town, looked good on paper for all parties. However, Branch went missing in action during all the offseason workouts. While he didn’t have to show up because the practices were voluntary, but Marrone gave the impression that the two weren’t even in contact at all. Branch also flunked his conditioning test at the start of camp, and he did admit that there was some displeasure voiced to him early on for not having his body ready for training camp. Since he’s returned to the field, Branch has been placed at the back of the line for defensive tackles. Corbin Bryant, Stefan Charles and now Landon Cohen are all getting time on the field before Branch. That trio has looked good, whereas Branch is barely noticeable outside of his size. It’s not the greatest of indicators that he started his night in the fourth quarter. He needs stark improvement to solidify a spot on the roster, because Marrone said that the veteran defender is "working for a spot."
Bills MVP: DT Stefan Charles
- Stefan Charles was a master of disruption against the second-team offensive line for the Steelers. Charles made his presence felt early on with a sack, then followed it up with another sack and the forced fumble that led to the eventual Bills recovery, which put their team in great position for points. With how disruptive he has been and how unnoticeable Branch has been, there is a case to be made for Charles to be the third defensive tackle on the roster even though he doesn’t have all that much experience on defense. He's having a great camp.
Bills LVP: OT Cyrus Kouandjio
- If Cyrus Kouandjio were a fifth, sixth or seventh-round draft choice, he would be in danger of being released by the Bills altogether. However, he is a second-round pick and the Bills won’t walk away from him after just one training camp. Marrone is an offensive line coach through and through and could welcome the challenge of trying to get the most out of Kouandjio. But he has a lot of work to do, which includes being able to fix his poor effort on the Steelers’ strip sack that secured the game-winning field goal for the black and gold.
Up Next: The Bills have Sunday off and then get back to work for their final week of training camp at St. John Fisher College. The first of their final four practices is Monday night at 6 pm.
- The Bills have started training camp before anyone else and will be one of the last to end it, too. With this much time and that many reps under their belt already, the offense needed to be a lot farther ahead than what they showed against the Steelers. It all boils down to EJ Manuel and how he’ll react to a given coverage and an actual game situation. He displayed it at times against Carolina and all throughout Thursday’s joint practice with Pittsburgh. Simply put though, no touchdowns in 10 drives is unacceptable with all that time spent on the practice field already. Manuel knows it, Marrone knows it, the rest of the players know it. For the Bills to be successful they need to learn how to score as an offensive unit which is a task that they just haven’t been able to master yet. Quite obviously, it’s essential to both the short term and longterm plans of Buffalo moving forward.