Only four days removed from their first preseason game of 2014, the Buffalo Bills — and specifically their first-team offense — took the field and found some rhythm in the early stages of the game. The Bills topped the Carolina Panthers 20-18 for their first preseason win, but perhaps even more impressive was the play of the man that most Bills fans were tuning in to see.
Second-year quarterback EJ Manuel has had a rough start to both his training camp and preseason, but some of his efforts — while not perfect — had the offense moving and created some optimism within the fan base for the season. What specifically did he do right, and who else stood out? Here are some observations from the Bills’ victory:
Manuel progresses with progressions
- In the opening preseason game the Bills only allowed EJ Manuel to throw the ball on very scripted plays. There weren’t many, if any, five-step drops that allowed the young quarterback to scan the field. That limited where he was looking, but also created safe, secure throws to get his feet wet in action. The results weren’t exactly sterling from a statistical perspective, but he did show to be crisp and decisive with this particular game plan. Against Carolina, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett elected to loosen the reins a bit, allowing Manuel to drop back, set up in the pocket and diagnose the play as best he could. It wasn’t perfect, and there were instances where Manuel did not go through the progressions that a play may have benefitted from him doing so. However, he did at least do so on a handful of plays, including the two biggest pass plays of the game: a 32-yard connection with slot receiver Chris Hogan, as well as the 28-yard jump-ball to Mike Williams. Particularly on the Williams play Manuel dropped back, scanned the field and spotted the wideout in a one-on-one matchup. He stood tall in the pocket, recognized the matchup and didn’t hesitate to deliver the ball and allowed Williams to go up and make a play for the team. Many of those things that were just pointed out on that play can be seen on the ‘room for improvement’ list, which means what the Bills are saying are starting to spread in Manuel’s mind a bit. Does he need to do it more often? Yes. Does he need to prove it in an actual game that counts? Absolutely. However, was it a good first step for the second-year quarterback? Considering how 2014 has started in training camp and in the Hall of Fame Game, the answer to that has the be a definitive yes as well.
The four horsemen
- In 2013 the Bills had only two running backs they knew they could depend on: C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Both players suffered an injury at one point or another in the season, and it even made Spiller try to play through a high ankle sprain when they all knew he wasn’t the same running back with the ailment. In the offseason the Bills went out and addressed the weakness in depth by signing Anthony Dixon, and then trading for Bryce Brown during the NFL Draft. That depth showed up against Carolina as all four running backs were highlighted for their individual skill-sets. C.J. Spiller had an electric cutback run early in the game, Fred Jackson provided some tough yards, Anthony Dixon punched the ball in from the goal line and Bryce Brown showed he had a little bit of everything. While Dixon’s prowess on the goal line was a talking point, the play of Brown was the most impressive of the quartet. He mixed a bit of speed, power and vision and kept defenders off of him while gaining big yardage. Brown was also impressive against the New York Giants, but he really played well against Carolina.
The problems at left guard continue?
- The easiest argument to make from the 2013 season is about the lack of consistency from the left guard position, and how it put the Bills in less than advantageous positions. Colin Brown and Doug Legursky starting at left guard is a thing of the past, though, and the front office in Orchard Park believed they had found the answer to their problems in free agency. Buffalo elected to sign Chris Williams, an unrestricted free agent and former first-round pick, to a fairly lucrative contract considering what his assumed skill level was. On Friday night in Charlotte, Williams had trouble keeping his opponent from making an impact on the game. It isn’t a new thing for the team’s starting left guard: he’s been exposed from time-to-time during training camp practices. It just hasn’t been as regular an occurrence as it was when the Brown/Legursky showdown was happening. On one play in the second quarter, Williams completely whiffed on his block and the defensive tackle slipped through to cause chaos in the pocket for Thad Lewis. The quarterback was eventually brought down on the play, and the left guard was to blame. That wasn’t the only time Williams slipped up against the Panthers, either. While he wasn’t completely at fault, the push at the goal line for two plays in a row went over his gap. The Bills ran Fred Jackson twice to that side and because Williams couldn’t help to get a proper push, the team were stopped dead in their tracks instead of giving the first-team offense some much needed confidence with a win in the red zone.
The battle at strong safety
- One of the main competitions for a starting position coming into camp was to play next to Aaron Williams in the defensive secondary, with the combatants being fourth-year player Da’Norris Searcy and second-year player Duke Williams. Before this week, the competition hasn’t been what was originally anticipated. Searcy was getting all the first-team reps with Williams only serving as the second-team free safety alongside Jonathan Meeks. That changed this week when Searcy had to go home to take care of a personal matter which allowed Williams to get the first-team snaps for the first time since training camp started, leading to his first start in preseason on Friday. His start wasn’t ideal, missing a tackle opportunity in the second level by trying to stop the player suddenly with his arms. He was able to shake off that play and come up with an outstanding stop against the run. Panthers running back Kenjon Barner took a handoff out wide, and in doing so, signaled Williams to rush up the field, fight through a blocker and then bring down the ball carrier for a fantastic individual effort. Searcy played with the second-team defense and got a gift of an interception. Other than that, his play didn’t really stand out. Perhaps the positive plays of Williams will earn him some additional time with the first unit and even jumpstart the competition that was supposed to be, but never really was.
Graham vs. Easley
- With the first five spots at wide receiver fairly solidified, it’s likely that there is only one spot up for grabs on the 53-man roster. Former third-round pick T.J. Graham and Marcus Easley are both vying to be the last receiver to make the final cut at the end of the month. For most of training camp, the advantage has gone to Easley who has shown to be a bit more consistent on offense than Graham. In the Hall of Fame Game Easley once again was the more impressive between the two, mainly for his work on special teams. On Friday against the Panthers however, it was Graham’s first day that he gained some ground back. Easley fell down on a deep throw and Carolina proceeded to pick it off without much distress, while Graham made a very tough contested catch along the sideline and had a quality punt return. It’s going to take many more good days for Graham to win that final job, but Friday was certainly a step in the right direction.
Bills’ MVP: HB Bryce Brown
- Brown zipped around all over the field against the Panthers’ second and third-team defense, averaging 5.8 yards per carry on 11 attempts. He displayed a good mix of speed and power, and then earned rave reviews from head coach Doug Marrone after the game. Marrone told reporters that he believed Brown had what it took to be a future starting running back in the NFL. It likely won’t be this year, but the Bills believe in the young, and low-mileage Brown quite a bit.
Bills’ LVP: G Chris Williams
- Watching Williams on Friday, you just never got the sense that he was thoroughly comfortable against the Carolina Panthers. While the Panthers boast a very good defensive front with their first unit, the starting left guard even struggled against the backups in the second quarter. Even though he’s played poorly at times, it’s still quite an upgrade over what they had playing there in 2013.
Up Next: The Bills next take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Saturday, August 15.
- The preseason can mostly be thought of as fool’s gold. A player can earn a reputation with a fan base in the preseason and then come nowhere close to those expectations in the regular season. With that said, it was still good to see second-year quarterback EJ Manuel take a minor step forward in his development. It’s something many have been waiting to see, and it must inspire some hope in the decision makers at One Bills Drive that he can get to the place that they want him to. However, it is only preseason and he needs to do all these things more consistently and when there is more at stake. Despite that, his performance on Friday against the Panthers was still necessary for both his confidence and development.