After two dismal pre-season performances, Bills QB J.P. Losman and his offensive running mates showed signs of life last night, making a few big plays and scoring their first touchdown of the pre-season. Unfortunately, defensive inconsistency and a multitude of penalties did the Bills in as they dropped a 28-17 decision to Vince Young and the Tennessee Titans.
As with any pre-season game - especially with a team as young as our Bills - there was plenty of bad to go along with the good. As promised, I spent my time last night critiquing the quarterbacks, wideouts, defensive linemen and cornerbacks - who, not surprisingly, get mixed reviews. Here's how I saw it last night:
Big Plays Overshadow Continued Inconsistency from Losman
Despite the big plays - including a 56-yard completion to Peerless Price and a 64-yard touchdown to Lee Evans - Losman was, once again, a streak shooter. When given time to throw - which, thankfully, is becoming more frequent now that the O-line has played together a bit - JP is on the money. His best pass of the evening came on a third and long, when he stood in the pocket, rifled a bullet toward the right sideline and hit a stretching Price for a spectacular first down. The more time he has, the better he's going to be. Unfortunately, no quarterback has time on every play - and when he was under duress, he made some errors. That included an interception on a play in which he held the ball too long, let a defender get into his ankles and couldn't step into the throw. The pass was a lame duck and easily intercepted by Lamont Thompson.
Long story short: Losman got better. But not by much. He still needs to become much more consistent, and do it as quickly as possible - this team is going to need to score points early on in the season to stay in games. More on that in a bit.
I love Buffalo's backup quarterbacks. Craig Nall was very solid, making quick decisions with the football and moving the chains. He had just one bad play in which he was hit behind for a forced fumble; the defender came so fast, however, that he really didn't stand a chance on the play. Trent Edwards was also solid, making nice throws and keeping plays alive with his feet. Nall pretty much ensured that he'll be the #2 guy, but he'll have stiff competition from Edwards in 2008.
The Search for a Physical Wideout: Is It Over?
I'll tell you what - Buffalo's coaching staff is not alone in loving the Bills' wide receiving corps, because these guys were studs last night. Evans averaged 20 yards per catch and stretched the defense. So did Price - something that he's always had the ability to do, and will likely do more this season. Roscoe Parrish had a couple of poor drops on really nice passes from Nall, but when he gets the ball, he's very difficult to bring down. He's the X-factor of this group; when he catches a bubble screen a yard downfield, he can turn it into a first down in the blink of an eye.
What has me most encouraged, however, is that despite a general lack of size across the board, there is a very physical aspect to Buffalo's wide receivers. Price is probably most impressive in this department, as he has been making nice catches in traffic all summer. Josh Reed also is an obvious physical receiver and may be the most important of Buffalo's top four guys - if he can give the team a presence underneath, it will further enable Evans, Price and Parrish to do their thing. Reed ran a couple of reverses last night as well - you can tell he used to be a running back, because he's tough to bring down.
One last note: Donovan Morgan got a few reps in the first half. He has clearly established himself as the sixth receiver on the depth chart; he's a big, tall threat who looks pretty smooth out on the field. He's a pretty serious darkhorse contender to make the roster. I also think that the coaching staff will keep Jemalle Cornelius on the practice squad - he had a beautiful downfield block on a long gain for RB Fred Jackson. Give credit to undrafted rookies who pave the way for other little-knowns to outshine them. I like this Cornelius kid a lot.
Should McCargo Start at DT?
Once again I was impressed with the play of John McCargo. He is the only defensive tackle on this roster who is athletic enough to get consistent penetration and strong enough to gobble up/shed blockers. We have enough guys who can do one or the other, but McCargo's talents could plant him in the starting lineup at some point during the regular season. He will be used heavily in the rotation.
The team's two starters, Larry Tripplett and Kyle Williams, show up for half the game each. Tripplett excels at running stunts with defensive ends and is sneaky getting into backfields on pass plays, but he disappears against the run. For Williams it's the opposite - he consistently is in the action against the run, making a ton of initial hits and holding the line against interior linemen. He just can't seem to avoid holding the line on the pass rush - he got blown back a lot when Vince Young dropped back to pass.
I'm not the only Bills fan who has picked on Tim Anderson a ton, but I've got to admit - I think he's going to make this team. He is stout. Very stout. He's the hardest D-Tackle outside of McCargo for O-Lines to single up on because he gets good leg drive, resulting in a good push. He doesn't use his hands well, however, so therefore can't separate to make tackles. But he's been playing a ton. I actually think he's snuck back ahead of Jason Jefferson for now; Jefferson also has a shot to make the roster.
One quick note about the pass rush: it wasn't there again. Aaron Schobel consistently gets too far upfield, and Chris Kelsay just isn't the type of guy to make a difference play in and play out. We need an impact pass rusher at DE, and fast - someone with lots of speed and good moves. Don't mock me for what I'm about to say - I think C.J. Ah You could be that guy. Seriously. Just don't expect it yet. The kid has a solid burst, and he's a lot quicker than I had anticipated. He just has no pass rush moves in his arsenal; once he learns a few of those, he could be a very good situational pass rusher for this team. Seriously.
These Bills Cornerbacks Are Not Physical
They're weak. I mean really weak. Only one Bills cornerback who is expected to see significant time will be consistently good in run support, and not surprisingly it's Terrence McGee. Jason Webster, Kiwaukee Thomas and Jabari Greer spend most of their time tackling backs and receivers from behind. There is hope in the physicality department, however - Ashton Youboty used to be a skinny little guy, but he's been hitting pretty hard on special teams and punishing receivers when they make catches in front of him. Polish up his cover skills and we've got a starter. For the record, Youboty is utilized in blitz packages from the nickel position far more than any other defensive back on the roster.
Other than McGee, there aren't any playmakers at this position. OK, Greer is picking off passes left and right in practices and the like, but can we really expect that to continue? He played a bit as a dime back with the first unit last night and, not surprisingly, Vince Young picked on him - and it worked. Tennessee's big receivers continually ran downfield, parked their big bodies in front of Greer and made long receptions. Greer's a good player, but I think he'd be much better off in a man scheme.
The top five guys (McGee, Webster, Thomas, Youboty, Greer) have pretty much locked up roster spots. But make no mistake - corner will likely be a priority next off-season. We need a physical guy who can jump holes in zones and make plays. Youboty can do that, but will he prove it soon enough?
Overall: Notice the word I used more than any other in this report? "Consistently". This Bills team is not consistent enough yet to seriously contend in an AFC jam-packed with good teams. But boy is there talent. Give this team 6-8 games and they'll begin to prove that the long-term viability of this franchise is in good hands.