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By Joe Buscaglia
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Bills training camp observations: Day 4

Before their first day off from the 2014 version of training camp, the Buffalo Bills got on the field one more time to help improve on their efforts from Tuesday. The offense struggled mightily just a day ago and the Bills entered the field at St. John Fisher College Wednesday with the goal of shaking off any lingering rust.

For the second straight day the team participated in the session in full pads, and the players were a little more physical this time around. Most of the physicality occurred during the first round of one-on-one’s between the offensive and defensive linemen, and that’s where we’ll start.

OL vs DL
- The defense clearly got the better of the offensive line on Tuesday, but the offense more than held their own in this drill Wednesday. The best offensive lineman of the exercise, believe it or not, was right tackle Erik Pears. He took two reps and didn’t look distressed in the least bit in thwarting Manny Lawson’s attempts to get to the quarterback. Left guard Chris Williams also won both of his attempts, standing up Kyle Williams and then keeping Ikponmwosa Igbinosun at bay. From the defensive perspective, Stefan Charles used a speed move to get by right guard Chris Hairston and then used power to push third-string center Macky MacPherson back into the pocket. Backup left guard Antoine McClain and rookie Cyrus Kouandjio also won both of their matchups.

Pears stiff arms Kouandjio for the time being
- Early on during Organized Team Activities, second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio was getting first-team repetitions at right tackle in addition to Erik Pears. That slowly drifted away, and now Pears has taken every snap with the first unit since training camp started four days ago.
“Erik really feels healthy. He's coming off an injury I guess last year. He's really performed well. It's still going on, nothing is locked in stone yet. It wouldn't be smart of me to sit here right now and say, 'Hey, this is locked in stone, this is locked in stone.' Everyone has to go out there and prove that they can do it and we'll see how it goes as camp goes on. But Erik has done a very good job so far.” - Doug Marrone

It appears Kouandjio will either have to step up his game or wait for Pears to falter at some point in camp or the preseason.

Spikes getting a nickel look
- Without Kiko Alonso in the lineup the Bills are mixing and matching personnel with the first unit to see what the best combination is of linebackers in nickel coverage. Keith Rivers, Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown were all expected to get looks in that respect, but middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was always thought to be the one that would come off the field in that scenario. Noted as a solid run defender and also someone that has had struggles in coverage in the past, the nickel isn’t a fit for him — at least not on paper. For a few plays during team drills though, Spikes was in the nickel look as one of the two linebackers on the field. His athleticism wasn’t tested in these looks, but the Bills are weighing all their options.

Hogan has down day
- Over the past two years in offseason workouts and training camps, one consistent throughout has been the steady play of wide receiver Chris Hogan. He always finds a way to get open and he usually makes at least one tough catch per day. On Wednesday, however, Hogan couldn’t seem to perform like he normally does. He was still getting open but had at least two drops on the day, including one that should have been a huge gain down the field. On that specific play, Hogan snuck behind the coverage on a post and the ball was delivered right into his hands, only for him to bobble and eventually drop it. Normally he stands out for the right reasons, but that wasn’t the case Wednesday.

Local linebacker stands out
- As the Bills continue their quest to build the best 53-man roster for September, it’s fair to note some of the younger, less-heralded players that make solid contributions during practices. One of those on Wednesday was Buffalo native, Canisius High School graduate and undrafted free agent Jimmy Gaines. Getting a solid amount of reps during practice, Gaines especially stood out on a sweep to the right with Anthony Dixon. Gaines didn’t hesitate one bit, recognizing the play and weaving his way through traffic to get a tackle for loss. While still likely a longshot to make the team outright, at least he’s showing signs of playmaking ability that could help him get on to the practice squad.

Branch in same boat as Dareus
- The Bills made an announcement on Wednesday before training camp started that several players had been put on non-participation lists, and among them was defensive tackle Alan Branch. He, along with Cordy Glenn, was listed on the Active/Non-Football Illness list. However, when Branch came up in conversation with Marrone today, it was revealed that he had failed his conditioning test and that was the reason why he was still on the list. The only peculiar thing was that like Branch, Marcell Dareus failed his conditioning test, but unlike Branch, Dareus was placed on the Active/Non-Football Injury list. The Bills explained that the difference in listings were a mere technicality, and something for Branch was initially flagged and tested for an illness ahead of the conditioning workout, but it was later found to be nothing at all. Basically, Branch and Dareus just have to get themselves in good enough shape to pass their conditioning test.

Day 4 MVP: WR Sammy Watkins
- By now, everyone has seen the catch in the early portion of practice. Watkins continued to dazzle through the day, even burning top cornerback Stephon Gilmore quite easily on a few occasions. So far, so good for the rookie and fourth overall selection.

Day 4 LVP: DE Manny Lawson
- Lawson gets the distinction because he was a non-factor in the one-on-one’s conducted between the offensive and defensive linemen. Lawson was no match for Pears and then lost a third time against third-string right tackle Mark Asper. At defensive end, Lawson is a fish out of water as a pass rusher. If Mario Williams or Jerry Hughes go down with an injury, they may need to blitz a bit more to provide consistent pressure. Either that, or they need to sign someone that can provide some better pass rushing depth. It’s just not Lawson’s strong suit.

Injury Update: CB Brandon Smith missed practice due to a lower body injury. FB Evan Rodriguez and TE Chris Gragg were both held out for the second straight day due to heat cramps which resulted in both being hospitalized. Rodriguez was released on Wednesday, but Gragg remained there.

Up Next: The Bills have Thursday off from practice, then get back on the field Friday for their second night practice of training camp. It starts at 6 pm and is open to the public, but fans need a ticket for entry.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

**Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

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People : Alan BranchAnthony DixonAntoine McClainBrandon SmithBrandon SpikesChris GraggChris HairstonChris HoganChris WilliamsCyrus KouandjioDoug MarroneErik PearsEvan RodriguezJerry HughesJimmy GainesKeith RiversKiko AlonsoKyle WilliamsManny LawsonMario WilliamsMark AsperNigel BradhamPreston BrownSammy WatkinsStefan CharlesStephon Gilmore

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