At long last, the marathon summer that was Buffalo Bills training camp and the preseason has mercifully met its demise. A third straight exhibition contest that yielded frustrating results for the first-team offense was seen by all in Ralph Wilson Stadium, and it didn’t provide the hopeful momentum head coach Doug Marrone was looking for.
The Bills fell to the Detroit Lions 23-0 to wrap up their fifth and final preseason game with some uninspiring results along the way. What was learned in the last tuneup for the Bills ahead of the regular season? Here are some observations from the team’s most recent loss:
Another frustrating night for Manuel
- Due to a poor performance against Tampa Bay on Saturday night, Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone decided to let his starting offense get the full first quarter against Detroit on Thursday. The results were not as bad as it was against the Buccaneers, but they weren’t much better, either. In three total drives, the Bills managed 55 total yards, four first downs (one from a penalty) and allowed two sacks. Quarterback EJ Manuel ended the day with 56 yards passing, having connected on 3-of-7 attempts. There were some opportunities missed along the way for the second-year quarterback. Manuel had an open Sammy Watkins along the sidelines on a rollout after the cornerback fell down in coverage. Manuel didn’t spot Watkins even though he appeared to be in his sightline, and instead threw the ball away and out of bounds. On a later third down attempt, Manuel correctly spotted Robert Woods down the field on a crossing pattern about 18 yards down the field. He delivered the ball a bit too high, and a bit too wide and while it was technically catchable, it wasn’t anywhere near where it should have been placed. The worst example, though, was on the play that ended up in another Watkins injury. It was a simple slant route that Manuel eyed down right from the snap. Lions linebacker Ashlee Palmer read the quarterback’s eyes and bolted over to the receiver. The throw was about a yard ahead of where it needed to be and it put Watkins in a position to take a big hit, which is precisely what happened. Manuel made a couple of sound decisions in the game, but the offense in total was completely inefficient.
Watkins gets hurt: was the risk worth it?
- Marrone and the Bills made the interesting decision to play Watkins despite him just coming back from an injury to his ribs. The wide receiver was in fact cleared to play by the medical staff, but in many cases all over the league, teams will often exercise caution when it comes to their marquee players in preseason games. Marrone explained after the game that he was excited to get Watkins in a game with Manuel because the two didn’t have as much experience with one another in games as he would have liked. Was the risk of further injury worth it, though? As former Bills linebacker Darryl Talley pointed out on Twitter, Palmer took a forearm right to the ribs of Watkins in what he called “knowing your opponent.” A healthy and playable Watkins without much game day experience with Manuel is far more valuable than a banged up and experienced rookie wideout heading into the regular season. The severity of the rookie’s injury has yet to be determined, but he was still put in a bad situation by both the coach and the quarterback. Even if he didn’t get hurt against the Lions, the sentiment would remain. If a player is slightly injured and important to the immediate future of the franchise, don’t put them at risk for further injury in a meaningless preseason game. It’s that simple.
Palmer channels his inner Leinart
- Just three days ago, the Bills signed quarterback Jordan Palmer to come in an audition for the backup quarterback role with the team. On Tuesday he practiced, he went through a walk through on Wednesday and then got his big chance Thursday evening. After what was witnessed, it’s safe to say that he would have liked to have the majority of the game against the Lions back. Palmer finished the game completing 9-of-22 passes for 73 yards, and threw three interceptions along the way. Granted, it’s quite a tough situation for Palmer to walk into and try to perform at a high level. Without much time to prepare, he had to operate an offense he wasn’t familiar with. It was, however, reminiscent of what was seen in the 2013 preseason finale from Matt Leinart. Having been acquired just days before their game with the Lions, Leinart completed only three passes for minimal yards, threw two interceptions and was benched by the head coach. Expect the Bills to comb the waiver wire for players that get cut over the next two days because, to put it bluntly, the franchise is not at all happy with the level of skill the backups on the roster have shown.
A lesson in accountability for EJ Manuel
- Here are two quotes from quarterbacks on the Bills roster Thursday night:
“I got a couple of drops on third downs, but as far as going to the right place with the ball, I thought I did a pretty good job.”
“There were different reasons as to why things didn’t go the right way tonight but I own all of them. I’m the quarterback, I’m the one back there pulling the trigger so I’ve got to make better decisions and move the team and score, and I’m frustrated I couldn’t do that tonight.”
One of these quotes is from a quarterback that has been with the team for three days, and the other from the first-round franchise signal caller entrusted with the keys to the 2014 season. Based on the simple fact that you’re reading this, it’s not hard to figure out which of the two was said by EJ Manuel. The expectation for Manuel in a post-game setting is not for him to be constantly down on himself. The goal isn’t to see him stand up at the podium and watch him suffer through his words after an excruciatingly bad performance. Taking some accountability for his role in the pitfalls of the offense, however, is more than fair to expect. This hasn’t been a new thing for Manuel, either: after quite a few poor practices or games, he’ll often reply with a positive response and summarize that he felt the offense progressed and played well. There is being positive, and then there is deflecting any ounce of blame onto others, which is precisely what he did in his post game quote Thursday. How will it go over with Robert Woods and Fred Jackson, the two players that “dropped” passes on third downs, that their quarterback is pinning the blame of the offensive woes on them? Then you have Jordan Palmer, who has been with the team since Tuesday, bearing the weight of the woes on his shoulders alone. The Bills touted Manuel as being a mature, leader of men. And while this is only one example from one quote after one game, there is little doubt that he has some maturing to do to become the leader the Bills think he can be.
The punting competition that never was
- When the Bills claimed Jordan Gay off of waivers from Carolina, most anticipated he would be battling Brian Moorman for punting duties in the regular season. That wasn’t the case according to Marrone. They viewed Gay as a kickoff specialist, but due to the offensive woes, they weren’t able to see him more than once in that capacity. Moorman on the other hand struggled all through the night with a 38.4 yards per punt average. The head coach put the longtime Bills punter on alert after the game:
“Brian has really been outstanding in practice, but in the games you expect him to do a better job and come back. I’m not saying that you don’t expect once here or there. You understand that. But two in a row. That’s one of the ways we have to play, so we’ll take a good look at that. We’ll discuss it with Doug [Whaley] and see where we’re at.”
Marrone was clearly referring to shanked punts, and didn’t give Moorman a glaring public vote of confidence with that quote. Moorman may get a few more opportunities in games, but it appears his leash is short. He needs to produce — and quickly — if he gets the chance.
Bills MVP: HB Anthony Dixon
- A couple of tough runs and a 5.8 yards per carry average on eight rushes is the best the Bills got from anyone on Thursday. He also took a pretty gruesome hit to an area that will make any male wince, so he gets more points for toughness.
Bills LVP: QB Jordan Palmer
- Palmer has the smarts of a coach but clearly not the ability to go along with it. He’ll be a good coach down the line, but he may not be long for Buffalo after his three interception debut.
Up Next: Final cuts are due Saturday, August 30 at 4 pm. The Bills then move on to play the Chicago Bears on the road for the regular season opener on September 7. Kickoff is set for 1 pm.
- An enduring summer of extra training camp practices and five preseason games is now over and the team needs to erase the last three on-field performances from their minds. They are merely exhibition contests, and it’s a given that both offensive and defensive schemes have yet to be debuted. However, even with the simplest of plays, this version of the Bills must learn to execute much better than they have been. Will they turn it around when the bright lights of the regular season finally gets here next Sunday? They’re certainly betting on it. As for now, it’s just a wait and see approach. And until it can be seen, Bills fans will be holding their collective breath that the preseason was merely a mirage.