Only four days removed from their last preseason contest, the Buffalo Bills are back at work when they take on the Carolina Panthers on Friday evening. It will be the second chance for EJ Manuel and the first-team offense to move the ball a bit more than they did last week, but it all depends on how the coaching staff approaches it.
It’s the first preseason game for the Panthers, so we’re not likely to see their starting units all that long. Some of which — namely, Cam Newton — may not even play at all. Which story lines are there for Bills’ fans to keep a keen eye on? As always, here are five things to watch for in the upcoming contest.
1) EJ’s time and responsibilities
- Following the loss to the New York Giants, fans were likely disappointed by two separate things: the little amount of time quarterback EJ Manuel had on the field, and, how little production the offense seemed to muster with the starting signal caller in the game. That leads to the biggest questions for the next game: how long will head coach Doug Marrone keep Manuel in the game against the Panthers, and will he be able to bounce back and show a bit better to the eyes of many? While his first exhibition contest wasn’t as much of a failure as some made it out to be — Manuel actually did well in both decisiveness and giving his receivers a chance to make a play — he still could have looked better in the process considering how much time on the field they’ve had already at training camp. Marrone may decide that the upcoming game is essentially preseason tilt number 1B, giving Manuel a similar amount of time (two drives) on the field as he did Sunday. The preference for many would be to give him additional time with the top unit, inspire some confidence and try to shake off the noticeable rust that was seen on both Tuesday and Wednesday at practice. He must rid himself of the indecisiveness he portrayed this week at practice and also show that he can go through his progressions in a game setting. These are very important facets to his game that he should improve on ahead of the regular season.
2) Will Cyrus and Seantrel bounce back?
- The offensive line has continued to be a question mark all throughout training camp with numerous positions in flux. Two of the main additions through the draft, second-round tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and seventh-round tackle Seantrel Henderson, have struggled over the course of the past week. For Kouandjio, his preseason debut couldn’t have gone much worse in his opening series of work. He evened out a little bit as the game wore on, but once again at practice he was playing a bit too unbalanced and the defensive line was able to take advantage. On the other hand Henderson was solid in his preseason debut, playing into the third quarter to maintain some quality repetitions against different opponents. When he got back on the practice field this week, however, he took a major step back. Jerry Hughes had his number on both Tuesday and Wednesday, constantly making his presence felt in the backfield. The Bills need Henderson to get back to how he was playing fairly quickly in the event that Cordy Glenn has to miss any time in the regular season.
3) Second-team run defense
- The first-team defense was one of the big highlights for the Bills during the Hall of Fame Game. They didn’t surrender any ground to the first-team offense and even forced a turnover with all the pressure they brought on Eli Manning. Once they exited the field, the floodgates opened up for New York on the ground. The rookie linebacking duo of Preston Brown and Randell Johnson, both of which residing on the second-team defense, had a night to forget in their preseason debut. Brown was getting gobbled up by blockers and Johnson was taking poor angles to the ball carrier time and time again. The two had to cringe a bit during their film review of the game, but they can only learn from it and grow. It would be fair to expect a bit of a smarter approach to the upcoming game in Carolina and potentially better results after getting their feet wet last weekend.
4) Possible big opportunity for Duke Williams
- The Bills excused safety Da’Norris Searcy from Wednesday’s practice to take care of a personal matter and have said that they’re unsure if they’ll have him back for the game on Friday evening. Through the first 13 practices at training camp, there has been no competition for the starting job at strong safety — it’s been all Searcy since the start. Second-year player Duke Williams, who has been short on opportunities with the first-team defense, might see an ample amount of time on the field if Searcy is not back with the team in time. He had a thundering hit during the team’s first preseason game, and really made a quality play in stuffing Anthony Dixon at the goal line during Wednesday’s practice. While Searcy has shown to be limited in coverage, Williams does not have those same limitations but does lack the overall experience that the former brings to the team. A strong showing with the first team could help Williams get into the mix a bit more for the starting job.
5) Hogan vs. Woods
- The biggest surprise of the game against the Giants was not how little EJ Manuel played, but how nonexistent Robert Woods was with the first-team offense. When the team went to three wide receiver sets, Chris Hogan came into the game to run with the ones, leaving Woods over on the sidelines to stew. The trend continued over the past two days of practice at St. John Fisher College, leading up to one of the strongest days Woods has had in training camp this year. On Wednesday Woods was catching everything in sight, and perhaps more noticeable than anything, he was playing with a bit of an edge. Perhaps the Bills were trying to send a message to Woods to cut the complacency and keep the edgy and motivated demeanor that helped him become a solid part of the passing game as a rookie. He is clearly a more talented player than Hogan and everything this offseason pointed to Woods having a big role in the 2014 offense. If Woods gets more time on the field Friday night, perhaps Marrone was just attempting to motivate a player on his team the best way that he knew how to.