A late touchdown and a failed two-minute drill left the Buffalo Bills on the short end of a 13-10 decision in their pre-season home opener against the Atlanta Falcons. Buffalo's offensive starters played the entire first half, but it was the defense that kept this thing close until the bitter end. The game did not pass without some devastating news for the Bills' D-Line prospects, however - DE Ryan Denney has a broken bone in his foot and is expected to miss a significant chunk of time.
I got to view the new high-definition scoreboards (really excellent, although the boards tended to cut out on replays), and our new seats in Section 114, Row 11 were great - very close to the action. Forgive me, however, if my analysis of the QB, OL, LB and S positions are a bit spotty - never before have I been so close to the Buffalo Jills during a game. Obviously I'll be focused on the game during the regular season, but the Jills definitely filled in the boring gaps during last night's game. Man, I love those seats.
Losman Inconsistent, Edwards Promising
J.P. Losman got the start and played the entire first half with the first-unit offense. His play was once again inconsistent - the highlight of his evening was a beautiful touch pass on the left sideline that Lee Evans turned into a big gainer. Other than that, some of the same issues kept the offense from establishing any sort of rhythm (penalties, poor snaps, etc.), but a lot of that was on Losman's shoulders. His accuracy was erratic at best, except for on the pass to Evans, and he really did not look too comfortable in the pocket. Losman was forced to take off and run on a couple of occasions as well; more on that in a moment. As bad as all of this sounds, it's clear that once these minor penalty/sloppiness issues are cleared up, the offense is going to be very good. They were very close to making a few more big plays last night.
Trent Edwards finished the game in the second half (Craig Nall did not play at all), and the youngster impressed me once again with his poise. It is very hard to rattle this young man - his touchdown pass to Parrish was more a product of Roscoe's escapability than anything, but it was great to see Edwards sit in the pocket, roll out to his playmaker's side and take a big hit as he delivered the touchdown strike. That really was a great play. Falcons rookie corner Chris Houston (a second-round pick) was covering on the play as well.
But Edwards still has his issues as well, as is expected for a rookie. He still locks onto his receivers from the time the ball is snapped; he'll need to learn to read and look off a defense before the coaching staff will feel comfortable putting him in meaningful games. He's also inconsistent sensing pressure in the pocket - he'll make a timely throw or step up perfectly on one play, then hold the ball too long and get walloped the next. Those two areas are things he needs to concentrate on in practice settings and in the next two games.
Why Do Bills Coaches Play Duke Preston So Much?
I had the chance to watch the offensive line throughout the entire contest. The first-unit line played the entire first half and had its fair share of issues. And they started with Duke Preston, who started the game at center in place of Melvin Fowler. He had a false start penalty on an early snap, and then snapped the ball a good 13 feet over Losman's head that after being recovered by Marshawn Lynch resulted in a 27-yard loss. He also had real issues getting any push up the middle - there were moments when our offensive line looked like a "V" on the field, with Peters and Walker getting great push upfield, Dockery and Whittle getting solid push and Preston stuck in neutral at the bottom of the V. He played the entire second half at left guard, and his play leveled out a little bit when he didn't have to actually touch the ball. I still can't figure out why this guy is getting so much playing time - it's becoming more and more apparent that he's probably not going to start this season.
The rest of the first unit line was, again, inconsistent. Pass protection was just as sketchy as it was in New Orleans, with Losman having to bail out of the pocket multiple times (although he may have held onto the ball too long once or twice). The run game was a different story - while they weren't as productive as they'd like, there were a few more openings for Lynch to hit in this game. There was improvement up front, but this line needs to continue to get playing time together to gel. Once that happens, they'll be an above-average NFL line.
One reserve I was very impressed with was Terrance Pennington. Playing with the second-unit line (which played the entire second half) at left tackle, Pennington looked very good in pass protection and teamed up with Preston on a few nice run blocks to the left side. I'm fairly comfortable with him being the top backup at both tackle positions - the kid looked pretty good against some speedy Falcons ends.
Wire, Posluszny Performing Well at Linebacker
Buffalo's first-unit defense again employed a "bend but don't break" mentality Friday night, giving up huge chunks of yards to Joey Harrington and the Falcons but holding the unit to just 6 first-half points. The Bills got a huge goal-line stand on the first drive of the game, stuffing the Falcons twice on running plays. The efforts were led both times by Donte Whitner and Paul Posluszny. This was Posluszny's first start in a Bills uniform (he'll start the finale at Detroit as well), and he didn't disappoint. He still seems pretty slow in his reactions, but in general he's in proper position and he seems very solid penetrating gaps in the run game. Once he gets more comfortable in the defense and learns to work with his teammates, he's plain and simple going to be a stud.
Coy Wire started for Angelo Crowell, and boy he did not disappoint. Wire was a monster, making tons of big hits (including the wallop he put on Jason Snelling, forcing a fumble that was recovered in mid-air by John McCargo, who also performed extremely well) and looking like a leader on the field. I have a hunch that he'll be playing a lot as it is in a fourth linebacker role, but should one of our starters go down (knock on wood), I'm very comfortable with having Wire play on either the weak side or the strong side. It's clear that his position switch was for the best.
Other quick notes: playing against the Falcons' second-stringers, John DiGiorgio looked pretty good, but he's being outclassed by Posluszny at this point. He'll start next week against Tennessee. Mario Haggan looked very good against the run and gets a lot of push against his blockers, though he has trouble full-on shedding them. Roy Manning saw second-team reps over Josh Stamer - could this be the end of Stamer's run as a specialist with this team? Manning looked pretty good, especially on a fantastic tackle of Falcons WR Laurent Robinson over the middle.
Safety Depth is Oh-So-Thin
The final position I tried to pay attention to was safety, and I'll tell you this - Donte Whitner looked like the real deal last night. He was fantastic in run support, lining up in the box on the majority of his plays, and he was very fast to the ball in the passing game. Donte had some tackling/angle pursuit issues last season, but I saw none of that last night. Make a few plays this season, Donte, and you'll be a Pro Bowler.
As impressed as I was with Whitner, I was equally unimpressed with Ko Simpson. The guy is re-defining the term "arm tackle". Often times Simpson is the first to the ballcarrier (figures he is when the front seven gets blown away and the back is to the second level in flash), but it seems that all Simpson ever does is wrap up his arms and hold on for dear life until a teammate can finish the job. I do not like this guy in run support at all, but his coverage is generally very solid.
Behind these two, depth is woefully thin. Jim Leonhard played a bit better last night, but if he needs to play for any extended period of time, the team is in trouble. The same goes for George Wilson and John Wendling - it's easy to tell that Wilson has talent, but he's working on a slow learning curve with his position switch and often times looks lost. He was also flagged for a terrible facemask call on the Falcons' go-ahead drive. Wendling looks the part, but he has trouble in coverage and has a lot of learning to do before he sees any playing time outside of special teams (where he looked moderately impressive last night).
Overall impressions were good. Both sides of the ball are this close to being where they want to be, but the offense needs to cut down on damaging plays/penalties and the defense needs to establish a pass rush (difficult to do with Denney out) and cut down on some of the bigger chunk-yardage plays they're giving up. Once they do that, this team will be able to hang with any team in the league.