It’s been nine years, but the Buffalo Bills finally participated in a joint practice with another NFL franchise on Wednesday. After making the relatively quick trip down to Pittsburgh, the Bills drove down the interstate to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania to take part in a session with the Steelers.
Many of the joint practices around the NFL have resulted in a testy environment with some skirmishes sprinkled in. Following suit, the Bills and Steelers both raised the intensity from a normal training camp practice.
How did the Bills perform against the Steelers in the controlled setting? Here are some observations from the day:
Control kept in live atmosphere
- After the Bills and Steelers went through their positional drills and stretching, they all came together on the main field and started off the very lively joint practice. When they got to team drills the Bills’ offense and Steelers’ defense paired off to one half of the field, while the Bills’ defense and the Steelers’ offense went to the other side. If anyone was expecting them to softly get into the joint practice, they were sorely mistaken. The teams immediately went to a live tackling drill and the tempers flared from there. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore laid a big hit along the sideline on a Steelers wide receiver, fullback Evan Rodriguez got into it with some Steelers defenders and safety Aaron Williams even had his helmet thrown after it fell off on a special teams play. Other than those three instances though, the Bills and Steelers showed quite the amount of restraint and poise throughout the practice. While the attitude and energy was a notch higher than most other practices against teammates, the two teams kept it clean for the most part.
EJ’s poor day
- One of the biggest questions heading into the pair of practices in Latrobe is how second-year quarterback EJ Manuel would perform against a team that was so successful in stopping him last year. Even with a solid performance in Carolina under his belt, Manuel showed inaccuracy in the first session with the Steelers more than most his other training camp practices in 2014. His throws were all over the place during team drills, whether they were short, intermediate or deep attempts, the ball just wasn’t being put in the proper place to facilitate a reception all the time. He did have his moments with some positive throws in the intermediate area to Scott Chandler, but aside from that, Manuel’s performance was one to be forgotten.
First-team run defense
- On the bright side of the day, the Bills on the other half of the field continued their recent stretch of positive play. The first-team was outstanding against the first unit of Pittsburgh’s offense, specifically against the run. The defensive linemen were occupying their blocks and the linebackers plugged the gaps to limit what Ben Roethlisberger, LeGarrette Blount and the offensive line could do for the majority of practice. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and outside linebacker Nigel Bradham especially stood out in limiting what Blount could do. Pittsburgh’s offensive line isn’t one of the best in the league, but the defensive line of the Bills once again showed why they are such a potent unit against another group that isn’t their own.
- The one-on-one battles between the offensive line of the Bills and the Steelers’ defensive line were among one of the more entertaining parts of practice, but the men representing the city of Buffalo weren’t exactly winning the battle. One of the main players that struggled throughout the drill is incumbent starting right guard Kraig Urbik, who was actually playing out of position on Wednesday. For the first time in a training camp practice the Bills used Urbik as the first-team left guard, partially due to the injury suffered by starter Chris Williams. In that role, Urbik just couldn’t seem to find his footing. He failed to engage with the defender on his four separate one-on-one attempts and lost all his battles easily. That, in comparison to the day that his direct competitor for starting right guard duties had in the drill, has to make Urbik feel a bit uneasy.
Glenn, McKelvin getting increased workload
- Two players that figure significantly into the starting lineup are left tackle Cordy Glenn and cornerback Leodis McKelvin, although each have been missing in action due to separate conditions. Glenn was just recently activated from the Reserve/Non-Football Illness list and McKelvin has been slowly recovering from offseason hip surgery. On Wednesday both took a step forward in their potential return from injuries. Glenn actually took some full contact one-on-one drills, the first time he’s done that since his activation. McKelvin was at first announced to likely miss practice, but dressed for the day and partook in both punt returns and even some team drills near the end of the practice. With the amount that cornerback Corey Graham struggled on Wednesday, a quick McKelvin return could be a welcomed sight for the Bills.
Bills’ Day 16 MVP: G Cyril Richardson
- The fifth-round rookie picked a great afternoon to have his best practice since coming to the NFL. With Chris Williams injured and sitting out of practice, the Bills elected to have Richardson take all the starting snaps at right guard with Kraig Urbik at left guard, and the rookie was quite impressive. He used his strength to lock up defenders along the line during both team drills and one-on-one’s, leading to some praise from offensive line coach Pat Morris. If there are more days like that, Richardson could go a long way in potentially securing the starting job as a rookie.
Bills’ Day 16 LVP: G Antonie McClain
- On the flip side, second-team guard Antoine McClain couldn’t get the hang of going up against the Steelers defense at any point of the practice. McClain lost all three reps in one-on-one battles, and easily. He’s gotten some opportunities throughout camp to audition for perhaps a bigger role, and even a roster spot, but hasn’t been able to break through just yet. He’s running out of time.
Injury Update: K Dustin Hopkins (groin), S Jonathan Meeks (neck), LB Ty Powell (medical), G Chris Williams (back), TE Tony Moeaki (hamstring), WR Marquise Goodwin (hamstring)
Up Next: The Bills and Steelers get back to work on Thursday night for their final joint practice. Saint Vincent College will house the session at 5:30 pm.