The Buffalo Bills were far from perfect Thursday night. The team still made mental errors, still committed penalties, and still had technical breakdowns that allowed the Indianapolis Colts to make big plays. But boy, were they a right sight better than in their pre-season opening 42-17 loss to Washington.
In defeating the Colts 34-21, the Bills showed flashes of what they can be operating at peak efficiency. Trent Edwards improved over his dismal 2010 debut, completing five of eight passes for 93 yards, including a 70-yard scoring strike to Lee Evans. Rookie running back C.J. Spiller rushed for 54 yards on 10 carries, including a gorgeous 31-yard jaunt to open the scoring. Terrence McGee intercepted a deflected Peyton Manning throw and returned it 78 yards for a score.
The team took some lumps, as well. Bruce DeHaven's special teams units gave up several lengthy kick and punt returns, as players struggled to contain and fill lanes. Drayton Florence committed two holding penalties. The pass rush continued to struggle, big plays were given up by the team's work-in-progress run defense (including a 17-yard score by Joseph Addai), and Ellis Lankster was burned on consecutive plays by the venerable combination of Curtis Painter and Taj Smith for the Colts' third score.
More work needs to be done. But after a dreary open to their pre-season slate, signs of life are a welcome baby step. Further observations lie after the jump.
Brohm Efficient, Unspectacular In Debut
Brian Brohm didn't play against Washington, but saw extended action with the second unit against the Colts, and was efficient. Brohm completed 14 of 21 passes for 125 yards. He still hasn't thrown a touchdown in the NFL, but he didn't turn it over, either, making quick reads and feeling pressure well in the process.
Let's not drag this thing out any further, though, folks: barring an injury in the third or fourth pre-season game, there's simply no way any QB unseats Edwards as the opening-day starter. Had Steve Johnson been able to pull in a perfectly-placed fly route through a blatant illegal contact penalty, Edwards' numbers would have been even better. He read Indy's 4-3 (caveat!) defense very well tonight, and we just haven't seen anything out of Brohm or Ryan Fitzpatrick that would leapfrog either past Edwards. Brohm's play was somewhat encouraging, but let's not dwell on what-ifs anymore: Edwards is this team's starting quarterback.
Tackling Woes Continue
Indianapolis has an excellent one-two punch at running back in Addai and Donald Brown, and both ran very well against a Bills defense that continues to struggle to wrap up runners. Donte Whitner whiffed badly on Addai's touchdown run, and combined, the Colts' top two backs gained 36 yards on just six carries. The tackling was iffy on every defensive and special teams unit, and needs to be a major point of emphasis for this team moving forward.
Coverage-wise, Buffalo looked better than they did against Washington, though Manning still made some nice plays down the field - including a 21-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme. Lankster was brutalized as previously mentioned, although strong performances were turned in by Leodis McKelvin and Ashton Youboty. The defense is still hit-or-miss, and technical breakdowns occur far too frequently, but some terrible play by Indy's backup quarterbacks made the unit look a bit more confident in Toronto.
A Few Player Observations
If led by a plus sign (+), I liked what I saw. If led by a negative sign (-), it's the opposite.
+ Joique Bell: Spiller will get all of the publicity - and with great reason - but the Bills have two pretty nifty rookie running backs. Bell was far superior to Chad Simpson tonight, turning in his second straight strong performance with 80 yards and a TD on 11 carries. He's fun to watch.
+ Keith Ellison: He made his '10 pre-season debut tonight, and showed why he's a must-save for the final roster - he's just too reliable to let go. He's smart, dependable as a tackler, and doesn't make mistakes. Considering how bad Buffalo's special teams units have been this pre-season, there's no way Ellison doesn't make this team.
+ Dominique Harris: His uphill climb to the final roster remains steep considering the Bills' depth at safety, but Harris has the look of a solid, NFL-caliber reserve safety. He's a big kid, a fluid athlete, and looks especially impressive as a blitzer, registering a sack and forced fumble from his SS position on Tim Hiller that fellow rookie Arthur Moats recovered. I'm curious to look at him as a specialist over the next couple of weeks.
- Aaron Maybin: Against mostly backup linemen, Maybin was ineffective Thursday night, turning in a far less impressive performance than in D.C. His on-field showboating doesn't bother me the way it does other fans, but it'd still be nice to see a more level-headed, focused player on the field. He's got a long way to go.
- Ellis Lankster: Brutal. Was beaten deep, was beaten short, and has been outshone by Youboty two straight weeks. Add in his muffed punt against Washington, and Lankster suddenly looks like a longshot to make the team.
We'll have much more on this game tomorrow, and in particular on Saturday, once we've had a chance to take a closer look at everything that transpired thanks to DVR technology. Many thanks to the dozens of you who made 791 comments on tonight's GameThread. Your snap judgments on this performance are, of course, welcome in the comments section.