The Buffalo Bills held a live scrimmage with no-limits (aside from the quarterbacks) tackling on Monday night, and both Matt Warren and I were on hand to take in the whole experience - just two (three, with my dad in the house) amongst a massive crowd at St. John Fisher College. I can't recall Growney ever being that packed; well done, Bills fans.
Perhaps if you ask kindly, Matt will work up a post about his observations. You can certainly re-read many of them in our open thread that ran during the scrimmage. My own takeaways are below, and I have five of them - though you're certainly welcome to ask about anything that's not covered.
That practice was fun
If, like me, you've been turned off to the idea of watching the Bills practice by seven years of Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey, do yourself a favor and get out to Fisher this summer. All of the platitudes being thrown around - tempo, energy, hustle - they exist because they're true. You may not see the intensity that we saw during tonight's live scrimmage if you make it out to Pittsford, but the practice setting is almost completely different from yesteryear, and far more entertaining.
The Bills got after each other tonight, friends. There were plenty of big hits and popping pads everywhere; heavens, that's a beautiful sound. The intensity level of this practice was up there: players were gassed on the sidelines after extended reps, and the pace of the practice was crazy. During 11-on-11 drills, the team must have eclipsed 100 total snaps with ease. These coaches know how to pack reps into a short time frame. This was a football practice through and through, and it felt like it lasted much longer than just two hours.
Remember how we spent most of the off-season worrying about the Bills' linebackers - and not just the traditional group, but also the edge rushers behind Mario Williams? Well, I'm officially not (too) worried about that group anymore, because Mike Pettine's defense appears to be very linebacker friendly.
Kiko Alonso and Nigel Bradham both looked fast and on their game as the starting inside linebackers. Williams will be fine, Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes both looked quick off the edge, Marcus Dowtin made some plays, and this Jamie Blatnick character was all over the field, routinely knifing into the backfield. Blatnick, quite frankly, is almost a shoo-in to make the team at this point, in my opinion, and could even contend for a sub-package rush role (he worked with the ones as a nickel and dime rusher tonight). Arthur Moats even had his moments, and third-teamer Chris White had an outstanding stretch defending the run in goal line work. On the whole, this group was very impressive.
Linebacker is a tough position to play; no matter how good one is, there are ways to exploit a linebacker. But with the way Pettine will be changing up looks and using his linebackers in a very aggressive fashion, this group looks like it could morph from pedestrian to productive in a hurry.
As bullish as I am on the team's defensive scheme and the group of linebackers at the top of the depth chart, I'm equally bearish on the secondary. Stephon Gilmore, Aaron Williams and Da'Norris Searcy look fine, and I thought Ron Brooks had a good night as the nickel back. Leodis McKelvin looked okay at times and bad at others; that's essentially what we've come to expect from McKelvin.
The rest of that group, at both corner and safety, was awful tonight. They struggled to stick with receivers, to recover when they were beat, and to play the ball in the air - to a man. All of them. Jeff Tuel ripped the second- and third-team defensive backfields to shreds with fairly pedestrian throws, and after EJ Manuel struggled mightily against the first-team defense early on, he got right against the reserves with a solid close to practice.
Gilmore is of the utmost importance to this team; he needs to be great. And when Jairus Byrd decides to show up, he shouldn't have any problem walking back into the starting lineup, either. Depth is the bigger concern, but right now, the secondary is the Bills' clear weakness defensively, in my opinion.
These receivers can flat-out play
Aided by that aforementioned defensive backfield, Buffalo's receivers looked very good on Monday night. Marquise Goodwin was the most impressive of the lot; pound for pound, he has the look of being the best athlete on the team, complementing his speed with an excellent ability to play the ball in the air and an edge of physicality to his play. He and Robert Woods both look like the real deal.
T.J. Graham beat Gilmore for a long touchdown pass from Manuel. Da'Rick Rogers made a nice catch on a deep ball, and is clearly a top-notch physical specimen. I like the smooth style with which Brad Smith and Chris Hogan play. Brandon Kaufman is a really intriguing athlete. There's a lot to work with here, and between the top four of Stevie Johnson, Woods, Graham and Goodwin, there are an awful lot of big plays to be made. They just need the ball. Which leads me to...
Some thoughts on Manuel
Manuel was bad again tonight, friends - but before you let your worry train start chugging at full speed, hit the brakes. From what I saw, everything that's ailing Manuel at the moment is mental. He's not completely in sync with his receivers yet, he's not seeing things the way he should against an aggressive and complex first-team defense, and he's late with a lot of throws. All of that is coachable. I thought he threw a surprisingly accurate ball when it came out on time and in rhythm, and there's nothing to worry about from a physical tools standpoint, I assure you. Technically, he looked pretty good.
Simply put: it just looks like Manuel's head is swimming. With veteran Kevin Kolb out of the lineup for the last two days, Manuel's slow progression through the first week of camp seems to have been accelerated greatly in the last two or three days, and it just looks to me like it's caught up with him. These bumps in the road are expected, particularly for a rookie. I'm not worried about the kid - but if Kolb returns to the team with strong practices, I think fans will begin to see the wisdom in letting the veteran start while the rookie continues to learn.
Again: if you have any more specific questions, please feel free to ask. I had fun tonight. The Bills look and feel different. The regular season can't start soon enough.