The Buffalo Bills opened their 2007 pre-season schedule with a 13-10 win last night against the New Orleans Saints. Despite the win, the Bills looked sloppy in their first game action since early January - the defense gave up big plays, the offense looked rusty and the team didn't get into a great rhythm until parts of the second half. But some big plays from some unlikely names sealed the win for the Bills, who are now 1-0 this pre-season.
As I mentioned in the Game Preview linked above, I spent the majority of this game closely monitoring four positions: running back, wide receiver, cornerback and the defensive line. With three pre-season games remaining, there are plenty of opportunities to analyze other positions. Here's what I saw at RB, WR, CB and DL tonight:
RB Depth is Deep, Versatile
By no means was Buffalo's run game dominant (in fact, it was virtually non-existent in the first half), but it's not hard to tell that the team has some serious depth at the position. Anthony Thomas got the start and played two series of his usual fall-forward, gain-three-yards style. Marshawn Lynch was sprinkled in for a couple of series as well, though he didn't do much in the way of statistics. Those two guys are the most likely candidates to split carries throughout the season, with Steve Fairchild using Lynch as a "playmaker" rather than a straight-up running back.
Shaud Williams was third through in the rotation, and while he did have a couple of nifty runs to the outside he was generally ineffective. This was especially true of his pass blocking, where his small size makes him a mismatch in virtually any situation.
The second half was dominated by Fred Jackson and rookie Dwayne Wright. Wright was solid in his debut, looking a lot more athletic than I originally anticipated - he really laid the lumber a couple of times and knows how to finish runs. But he needs polish. The obvious star of the group was Jackson, who scored the lone Bills touchdown of the night on a 17-yard scamper and repeatedly broke contain behind what appeared to be some shoddy blocking. He also looked great catching the ball out of the backfield and was far more effective in blitz pickup than Williams. He's making a strong bid to land a spot on the final roster.
Slot Wideouts, Aiken Shine
With J.P. Losman playing only two series, the passing attack was generally inconsistent last night. That does not mean, however, that there weren't positives - because there certainly were.
It starts with the team's slot receivers, Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish. With the Saints limiting Buffalo's downfield passing, Reed and Parrish capitalized by making plays on intermediate routes and moving the chains. Both players showed good separation skills underneath. Reed made a nice play along the sidelines on a third down conversion, and Parrish reached up to grab a high pass from Craig Nall on another conversion down the middle. These guys both played well, and it appears that even if they don't start, they'll be seeing a lot of balls thrown their way this year.
I was also impressed with the work Sam Aiken did in the second half. He was dominant on special teams in the first half, and then became the "go-to-guy" for Trent Edwards in the second, moving the chains on multiple occasions and even breaking a few tackles to pick up extra chunks of yardage. There's no way this guy doesn't make the team, especially if he can continue to produce as a receiver.
Donovan Morgan played a bit and factored into the receiving game, but guys like Jemalle Cornelius and Scott Mayle were invisible. Looks like it's a five-or-six horse race at the wideout position.
Brees Picks Apart Secondary
In the first quarter-plus, Drew Brees absolutely had his way in the passing game. Left or right, short or long, Buffalo couldn't stop him (unless it was from actually scoring points). I attribute a lot of this to a hurried approach by the Saints (which resulted in a disturbing lack of any pass rush by our D-Line; more to come on that in a bit), but there were still some players who disappointed.
Terrence McGee, Jason Webster and Kiwaukee Thomas were all steady as the top three guys. They gave up some plays, but were rarely out of position and were quick to make tackles on most occasions. If the team can garner more of a pass rush, these guys will be alright.
The defensive star of the game was Jabari Greer, whose spectacular training camp carried over to this game in the form of two interceptions. His added muscle made him less of a liability as a tackler as well - it seemed that he had less trouble in run support than usual. I'd love to see this kid carry his solid play over to the regular season, something he's failed to do after strong training camps the past two years.
Ashton Youboty, as expected, was a bit inconsistent. He made some great plays, including a fantastic tackle as a punt gunner and a well-played reverse where he limited a long gain to 5 yards, but his coverage was just average. The kid certainly has potential, but he's being outclassed by Greer at this point. There's still a chance he'll earn some playing time.
I was not impressed at all with Jim Leonhard. He saw a lot of time with the first unit defense as a third safety in nickel and dime situations (playing Donte Whitner's role, who sat out with injury), but he looked out of his league a bit. He was usually in good position, but he's just not athletic enough to keep up with receivers as talented as the Saints'. I believe that we'll see a lot of Leonhard in packages like this until Youboty is ready to assume that role - and the sooner he does, the better. Greer and George Wilson (whom I was impressed with in run support) could get looks there as well before camp breaks.
D-Line Solid Against the Run
Despite a nice run by Reggie Bush and a couple by rookie Antonio Pittman, I was pretty impressed by the Bills' run defense. The defensive line did a good job of disrupting running lanes and channeling defenders to unblocked Bills; it's not their fault that guys like Leonhard and John DiGiorgio missed the tackles. I was particularly impressed with the play of Kyle Williams, who seemed to constantly eat up two defenders (usually a center and a guard). John McCargo also seemed effective in run fronts as he played deep into the second half.
The pass rush, on the other hand, was awful. Aaron Schobel did not suit up with a hamstring issue, and Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney (who started in Schobel's place) were yanked pretty quickly as well. Eric Powell rotated in before Anthony Hargrove (likely having to do with Hargrove's recent arrest), and he had a nice play keeping Reggie Bush from cutting a run back toward the middle of the field. Hargrove played a ton this game, as did rookie C.J. Ah You. Hargrove was pretty disruptive in the second half.
Case in point about the pass rush: Kelsay and Tripplett ran a very nice stunt while Brees was still in the game, but Tripplett did not hold his lane. Instead of keeping his outside line, he turned inside enough to allow Brees to slip outside on a rollout. Kelsay and Tripplett had Brees dead to rights on a sure sack, but Tripplett's over-eagerness cost them a big loss. Stuff like that can't happen, especially when our defense relies on big plays from our D-Line.
Overall, I was impressed with the team's young guns hanging on for a victory. I was very impressed with the fact that the team, by my count, only committed three penalties - a rarity for a team this young. There's a lot to build on, but there's also a lot to work on as well. If you'd like to sound off on what you thought/observed in this game, either post it in a comment here or throw it up in a Diary. Let's get as much feedback on this game as we can, folks!