It took three-and-a-half preseason games and 19 possessions, but the first-team offense of the Buffalo Bills finally got the hefty piano off of their backs. At long last, they marched into the end zone for six points.
Outside of those two drives to open up the second half, it was a game that were full of mistakes that the Bills will need to correct quickly ahead of their upcoming preseason finale on Thursday. What were the biggest takeaways? Here are some observations from the Bills’ 27-14 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
A first half to forget
- EJ Manuel and the first-team offense came into Saturday night with one goal in mind: to take the ball, drive it down the field and end a drive with a touchdown. It’s been an elusive goal for them in the preseason leading up to the Buccaneers game, only doing just enough to bring kicker Dan Carpenter out on to the field for a field goal attempt. The way it started in the first half, it didn’t look like that drought was ending at any point in the near future. Eight drives in the first two quarters resulted in just 82 yards, six first downs, seven penalties, three turnovers and not a single point. The fans in attendance at Ralph Wilson Stadium let their feelings known for the sloppy play by raining boos down on to the field. In their defense, it was well warranted. Scott Chandler just fell down on his route that led to an interception, C.J. Spiller couldn’t hang on to the ball after catching it and EJ Manuel couldn’t hit his receivers at nearly enough of a consistent rate to get the ball down the field. In his defense, the offensive line allowed some pressure and big hits to come his way. That said, Manuel needed to be much better than he was in the first half against Tampa Bay’s top unit. He turned it around in the second half against the Buccaneer backups. Regardless of who it was against, you can’t completely ignore a 10-for-10, 131-yard two drive performance that resulted in two offensive touchdowns. A solid showing in however much time he’s allotted against Detroit’s top unit is in order.
Spikes, Rivers, Bryant stand out early
- The offense had a poor start to their evening, but the first-team defense looked the part once again in the preseason. The Bills got pressure, forced errant throws and once again looked quite stout against the run. Of all the issues from 2013, the revamped run defense is among the most noteworthy improvements. The two players that really stood out in that phase on Saturday were middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and strongside linebacker Keith Rivers. Spikes got through his blocks and anticipated the lanes to come away with six tackles on the day. Rivers shot through the lanes and even had two tackles for loss to go with his six total tackles. Defensive tackle Corbin Bryant, who started for the injured Kyle Williams, shined in his place with a sack and two quarterback hits to go along with all his pressure. Bryant has stepped his game up this summer and is the top reserve at the position, replacing Alan Branch in that role. The defense started slipping as the first half wore on and some starters were replaced, but they had yet another solid start. The first unit is the most encouraging aspect of the preseason.
O-Line penalty problems
- The Bills shot themselves in the foot repeatedly with the amount of times they were flagged on Saturday. The problems started up front on offense; four of the five starting offensive linemen accounted for at least one penalty against Tampa Bay. Cordy Glenn and Erik Pears each had two, while Eric Wood and rookie Cyril Richardson each had one of their own. The only starter not to commit a penalty? Rookie right tackle Seantrel Henderson. Not only did they take penalties, they took them after some big gains and cost the offense some of their drives. That is sure to be a point of emphasis for head coach Doug Marrone in the short week leading up to their next game.
Bye, bye Branch?
- When the inactive list came down roughly an hour before the game started, the biggest surprise was the inclusion of defensive tackle Alan Branch. He wasn’t listed with an injury at all during the week of practice and took all his normal reps at practice. Marrone made the announcement after the game that Branch had been arrested, and shortly after it was found out that it was for drunk driving. The writing is on the wall for Branch and his future, or lack thereof, with the Bills. After he signed his three-year extension in December, Branch was a no-show, no-call to Organized Team Activities, showed up to training camp out of shape and failed his conditioning test, he’s fallen down the depth chart behind Bryant, Stefan Charles and Landon Cohen and now he gets arrested the night before the team’s game. It was also interesting that Marrone included the fact that he couldn’t get ahold of Branch, but that the team had to communicate with him through other people. It would be a complete shock if Branch is still a member of the organization when the team trims down to 53 players, and he could be gone even in the first round of cuts due by Tuesday.
Battle for backup QB is wide open
- When EJ Manuel finally left the game, to the shock of many, Dennis Dixon was the next quarterback to enter. Dixon, who has been the fourth quarterback all summer, got his first real taste of preseason action on Saturday. It didn’t go well. He was only credited with one fumble, but the ball slipped through his hands three times in just a six-play span. Those ball security issues forced Dixon out of the game after only one series and the team turned to Jeff Tuel. Tuel was able to move the offense and ended with 90 yards, completing 8-of-14 pass attempts. Thad Lewis, however, did not play a single snap. After the game Marrone said that all three were battling for the backup job. One would have to think that with the lack of definition through most the summer, the team will likely look to free agency to see if anyone is available. Tuel is likely safe, but both and Lewis and Dixon need to pick it up in the coming week, or else they could be joining the lengthy cut lists around the league.
- It was a gorgeous day for football and the Bills were smiling wide as they got to show off all the new improvements to Ralph Wilson Stadium. The widened concourse areas, the new Bills store and the new scoreboards on the opposite end of the stadium all went over very well with fans. While they didn’t get the performance from the team that they all wanted, it’s hard not to be impressed about all the new features that they’ve done in the offseason.
Bills’ MVP: LB Keith Rivers
- Six tackles, two tackles for loss and he was one of the keys to a solid run defense for the fourth game in a row.
Bills’ LVP: QB EJ Manuel
- The second half was solid, but his first half performance left a sour taste in the mouth of most Bills fans.
Up Next: The preseason finale on Thursday, August 28 versus the Detroit Lions. Kickoff is set for 7 pm.
- It would be foolish to go overboard and predict that the Bills will have a terrifyingly bad season based on what they did in one half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s likely to be an impulsive, gut reaction, but it still is only the preseason. Manuel and the first-team offense did not look good when they were up against the best Tampa Bay had to offer. It’s discouraging, but not damning. The real test will begin on September 7 in Chicago for the start of the regular season. That’s when the real judgement of Manuel and the offense will begin. However, if that unit looks anything like they did on Saturday, it could be a long season no matter how well the defense plays. The book isn’t written just yet, though.