OK, so preseason game 1 is in the books. We finally got to see both Doug Marrone and EJ Manuel in live game actions and opinions are being formed all across Western New York. We all know that preseason means nothing and game 1 means even less than most but there are still some solid things to take away from this game. Here are my thoughts
The elephant in the room, so lets just address it from the start. E.J. played well, he did not set the world on fire but I don't think any but the most optimistic of us were expecting him to. He looked calm and poised. The biggest thing I took away from Manuel's performance is that he looks the part of an NFL quarterback. A lot of rookies look out of their depth under the lights in a live NFL game and some get swallowed up by it all. Manuel did not get swallowed at all. He looked like he belonged there. It was pretty obvious that the coaching staff was keeping it simple and safe but he still came away looking impressive. He made a couple of bad throws but did not make any bad decisions which is key for a rookie. I loved seeing him throw the ball out of the back of the end zone - that is a decision that 90% of rookie QBs are NOT smart enough to make. The two minute drill was excellent. It was not exactly a perfect Manning-esque two minute drive but it was efficient and effective. 9-for-9 on a 95-yard TD drive to end the half is about as much as you can ask for out of a rookie QB in his first NFL 2-minute-drill. I liked what I saw, now I want to see Marrone take the leash off and let EJ show off that arm we've heard so much about.The one clear con in this game was the blown handoff. The whole lifting the ball over the FBs head on an ISO play is weird and awkward. If I were Marrone, I'd work on correcting that ASAP.
I was very impressed with Marrone in his debut, aside from the obvious challenge he should've called on the Indianapolis first down that clearly was not even close to a first down. Of course, one can blame the folks in the booth for that just as much as Marrone. Someone up there with the benefit of instant replay should've been screaming in his ear to throw the challenge flag. Aside from that I thought he did an excellent job. It's good to have a coach who leaves play calling up to his coordinators as well. An NFL head coach has enough on his plate on gameday without trying to worry about calling all the plays on one side of the ball as well. I like that he never took his foot off the pedal, as well. It may have been preseason but he didn't even consider slowing down the offense until there was absolutely no way Indy could catch up.
I like it. I like it a LOT. This is what a high-speed offense is supposed to look like. Kelly and co. moved very fast back in the heyday of the K-Gun but they never looked rushed. That was the big difference between the recent hurry up experiments we've seen in Buffalo and Marrone/Hackett's style. The offense never looked like they were consciously hurrying, they were just always moving one gear faster than the defense would prefer. In recent years, the offense always looked uncomfortable in the hurry up offense, they were clearly TRYING to hurry and it was throwing them off. That wasn't the case here. The offense was very comfortable, the defense was clearly not. That's what a hurry up offense SHOULD be.We'll have to reserve final judgement until we see it against a less vanilla defense (and a better one, Indy certainly is not a juggernaut) but so far, I'm very impressed.
The Running Game
I won't spend much time here. They are what we thought they were. CJ Spiller is the best player on the team and the most important part of this offense. Frankly, I don't think we need to see him again the rest of the preseason. Point proven - he's elite. FredEx looks like the steady, reliable old veteran I think most people expect him to be. His numbers would've looked even better if Kelvin Sheppard didn't get away with blatant pass interference. I was not very impressed with the reserves but with The Real CJ2K and FredEx on the job, I'm not overly concerned with our reserves.
I still don't think we'll be challenging for title of "best linebackers in the league" anytime soon but I already like this group a whole lot better than what we had last season. They are noticeably faster and they played like they were trying to make a big play rather than just prevent one. Kiko Alonso looks at home in the MLB start and at this point I would be surprised if he is NOT our week 1 starter. We got to see him cover the run, cover the pass, and rush the passer and he looked like a seasoned veteran doing all three. I was especially impressed with his pass defense. That pass breakup in the end zone is a play you won't see many veteran NFL middle linebackers make, nevermind a rookie in his very first game. I was also highly impressed with Jerry Hughes. Now, you have to factor in that he was playing his old team and that always gets guys to play harder but #55 was EVERYWHERE today. We'll see what happens when he's not playing his former team but I think he made a case for a spot in the starting lineup today. It certainly looked like we got the better end of the Hughes-Sheppard trade. I want to see them up against a better running back but I liked what I saw today.
These guys had the toughest task today. Indy doesn't have a great defense or a great running game but they've certainly got one of the better air attacks in the league. I thought our secondary held their own today. They gave up some plays but they're young and that's going to happen against Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne, and TY Hilton. Especially when 2 of your projected starters aren't on the field. I was looking forward to seeing Ron Brooks because I think he has great potential. I thought he looked solid. He made one very silly mistake but followed it up with a huge drive-ending play. I think we found our starter across from and, if needed (as seems likely), eventual replacement for Jairus Byrd. Aaron Williams looked very impressive today. This guy should have been playing Safety from day one. He and Byrd could make a VERY formidable pair.
The Special Teams
I didn't expect to be handing out a grade to the special teams (except maybe an F) but something I didn't really expect to be a strong point of our team this year just made a statement on BOTH sides of the ball. Regardless of what happens with him as a receiver (though he's looking good there too) Marquise Goodwin is a gamebreaker as a kick returner. As good as the return game looked, I was EQUALLY impressed with our kick coverage unit. That group got chewed up last season but they were on fire today. If this is what we can expect in the regular season, Buffalo will be one of the top 3-5 special teams units in the game both in the return game AND in coverage.
There is still some work to be done and we have yet to see the other half of our quarterback competition but overall the team definitely appears to be moving in the right direction. I didn't feel it was necessary to do a whole write-up and grade for him but Jeff Tuel clearly just played his way onto the roster. He may have been playing 3rd stringers but he looked poised, in control, and confident running the offense. If something happened during the season and he had to step in, I would not go into complete panic mode and, honestly, if we had not drafted a QB in the first round his name may have been inserted into the starting QB competition. Of course, that will not happen with Manuel on the roster. Fair? No. But true.