The Buffalo Bills opened their 2009 pre-season slate with a 21-18 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the Hall of Fame Game. A fake punt touchdown rush and a LenDale White score made the score 14-0 in favor of the Titans early, and Buffalo's offensive red zone struggles couldn't even the score in the first half. Second-year CB Reggie Corner intercepted an Alex Mortensen pass in the fourth quarter and returned it for the Bills' lone touchdown on the evening.
There were a few encouraging signs in this game, with the general pacing and execution of Buffalo's no-huddle offense being the biggest news in that department. Unfortunately, there are a lot of areas still in need of work; on the fortunate side of things, the team still has five weeks of pre-season action to work out the kinks. Our general observations are after the jump.
Even the no-huddle needs good blocking
Buffalo's starting offense got exactly one series, and despite the fact that the drive ended in a Trent Edwards interception, the offense appeared to be clicking. Edwards looked supremely comfortable operating the no-huddle, promptly completing his first three passes for 34 yards - the first two of which were first down strikes to Buffalo's new golden boy, WR Terrell Owens.
The re-structured offensive line, however, was a problem throughout the night. Bills quarterbacks routinely had defenders around their ankles and were forced to create some extra time to throw for themselves on numerous occasions. Edwards experienced this twice in just five drop-backs; the first time, he scrambled for 8 yards and a first down, but the second time rookie guard Andy Levitre was bullrushed into the pocket, causing Edwards to sail a pass intended for Lee Evans. The pick was made, ending an otherwise solid drive.
Still, even though the offense mustered just three field goals on the night, the merits of the no-huddle were apparent. Particularly with the first-team offense, the pacing was excellent. Tennessee's defense was scrambling a little bit to keep up. Edwards looked completely in control on his nine-play, 50-yard drive. Even with subpar line play, the starting offense showed some promise.
Run game and red zone in need of work
Much will be made over the next couple of days of the fact that Buffalo's line is very much a work in progress. The pass protection wasn't great - we've already touched on that - but Bills quarterbacks were still able to complete 22 of 32 passes for 197 yards. The far more pressing issue, at least in my humble opinion, was the run blocking. The Bills ran for just 56 yards on the evening, averaging just 2.67 yards per carry. Xavier Omon led the team with 36 rushing yards on 11 carries.
The red zone was an issue area as well. Twice in the second quarter, the Bills started possessions in Titans territory, and twice, the Bills' Ryan Fitzpatrick-led offense failed to put the ball in the end zone. The team settled for just three points on those drives (the first ended when the team failed to convert on fourth down). The rushing issues were a big part of the lack of touchdowns; the bigger reason was the play-calling. Without WR Steve Johnson on the field, the Bills were short a red zone target other than Shawn Nelson in that situation, and it certainly showed.
First-team defense not great, either
Buffalo's defense got off to a good start on the evening, shutting down the Titans early. Unfortunately, that effort was wasted when Titans rookie punter A.J. Trapasso ran a fake punt 40 yards for a score. Kerry Collins then efficiently led the Titans down the field for another score after Edwards' interception, quickly extending the lead to 14-0. Minus any semblance of a pass rush thanks to seeral quick throws, Collins completed 7 of 10 passes for 82 yards on two possessions. There's a lot of work that needs to get done defensively, as well.
Paul Posluszny was the defensive star of the night, making two nice stops and nearly intercepting a Collins pass on the first series of the game. He looks primed for a big season.
If there was a bright spot, it was Buffalo's run defense; the Titans managed just 73 yards rushing on 31 attempts, an average of just under 2.4 yards per rush. The issue was the LenDale White touchdown; Buffalo always seems to struggle with physical backs, and that didn't change tonight. Buffalo's secondary was also quite good despite the fact that Collins carved them apart early; Leodis McKelvin and Reggie Corner recorded interceptions (Corner's, as we mentioned, returned for a score), and nearly every defensive back on the roster made at least one solid tackle. Right now, the secondary is the clear strength of this defense. We just need a pass rush to show this group off. Paging Joel Segal...
More extensive look coming Tuesday
All in all, this is about what you would expect from a season-opening pre-season game in Buffalo - a few encouraging signs, plenty of ugly play, and a sense that a lot needs to be accomplished prior to the season. There are still five weeks to go, so let's not panic just yet, particularly in regards to Levitre and the offensive line.
We will be "reviewing the tape," so to speak, on Monday. We'll have film analysis up Tuesday for all three phases of the team (offense, defense, special teams). For now, feel free to leave your general observations on the Hall of Fame game (if you saw it).