The Buffalo Bills closed out their 2007 pre-season schedule by defeating the Detroit Lions 16-13. Despite the final score, the Bills players we're expected to watch for the next seventeen weeks played, in general, poorly - before Trent Edwards came in for the final first-half drive (and finished the game), the Bills were trailing 13-0. There were penalties, problems and missed tackles, and the Lions were really taking it to the first and second units of the Bills.
Despite the poor first-half performance, there was plenty to be excited about with the final pre-season performance. J.P. Losman looked very sharp, completing five of six passes, and (his backup?) Edwards was brilliant, completing 18 of 24 passes for 182 yards and putting up all 16 points for the Bills. There were a few players who played well, including Fred Jackson (scored the lone TD), Ashton Youboty and John Wendling.
Run Game Showing (Faint) Signs of Life
For much of the first half Buffalo's rushing offense was stymied. Marshawn Lynch looked a little better in his final pre-season tuneup, as he had a bit more room to run this time around. His numbers weren't great but he ran hard, and he always seems to fall forward once he gets moving in that direction. He also had a nice catch-and-run on a route out of the backfield.
Fred Jackson, Dwayne Wright and Shaud Williams took most of the second-half carries (Jackson saw a lot of playing time in the first half), and all three had their moments. Jackson again made some nice runs and catches and scored the Bills' only touchdown; Wright had some nice runs to the outside and finished a lot of his runs nicely; and Williams proved to be shifty, breaking a few runs for intermediate gains after sifting through some trash at the line of scrimmage.
Overall it was by no means a stellar rushing performance - especially in the first half. The starting offensive line again had trouble blocking directly up the middle, causing Lynch to get hit in the backfield multiple times. But there were signs of life. I get the feeling that this line is going to struggle with quick, powerful lines - as Detroit has, and as the Broncos have.
Tackling Still Shaky in Run Support
Like the rushing offense, Buffalo's run defense is showing signs of being OK, but the fundamentals aren't quite there yet. Repeatedly last night, Lions RB T.J. Duckett would take a carry, hit the line with nowhere to go, then bounce, find a cutback lane and there would be no Bill defender there to clean up the play. Either that or the defender would miss the tackle. I thought the defensive line played pretty well - Kyle Williams and Tim Anderson are going to make a fine 1-2 combo at the nose tackle position, because they consistently tie up their blocker and allow linebackers to penetrate. The problem is the linebackers.
Perhaps things will be different when Angelo Crowell gets back in there, but I wasn't impressed with the Bills' linebackers last night. I thought Paul Posluszny struggled, as he had trouble getting through, around and off blockers and often had to try to trip up runners rather than bring them down in a more conventional manner. Keith Ellison was not much better, although he did have one play where he read a run perfectly, blew through the line and hit the Lions runner in the backfield for a loss. Coy Wire was awful - sure he made some nice hits, but it's feast or famine with him. Either he explodes through the line and makes a tackle for a short gain, or he gets blown off the ball and the back picks up 10 yards.
The scheme is going to work. The defensive line has done a pretty nice job of clogging up lanes. Buffalo's back seven just needs to do a much better job of filling their gaps and tackling; if they do that, the Bills' run defense could be much better than the travesty that was last season.
Pass Rush is Anemic at Best
For a fourth consecutive game Buffalo's pass rush left a lot to be desired. The starting defensive ends - Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay - saw only three plays, so that must be taken into consideration. But the rest of the linemen struggled.
The Bills did eventually start to get after the quarterback in the second half, but the reasons were twofold - first, the team often sent two blitzers, either two linebackers or one 'backer and a cornerback; second, the secondary's coverage was often so tight that it gave the Bills about six seconds to get after J.T. O'Sullivan. I think that the Bills' blitz packages work well, but the blitzers need to do a much better job of getting there - I saw Posluszny sent on a few last night and he'd hit the line as if he were running into a brick wall. When he times those right he'll drive quarterbacks nuts.
If there was one defensive end I was impressed with in the pass rush it was C.J. Ah You. For a seventh-round pick, he's a lot speedier than I guessed he would be. He consistently gets good burst off the ball and good leverage on his blocker, but he just doesn't have enough moves in his pass rush arsenal to do anything with his physical talent. I really hope this kid sticks with this organization in some capacity, because I really feel he could be a pass-rushing third-down specialist in the not-too-distant future.
Penalties Hurt Not in Quantity, but in Quality
With a really young football team, penalties and mistakes could be the team's ultimate downfall in the early portion of the season. That showed through last night - the Bills didn't commit a lot of penalties, but their mistakes came in crucial situations that inhibited their success. A holding penalty nuked a good drive being orchestrated by Losman in the first quarter; an offensive pass interference on Peerless Price wiped out a very nice third-down conversion. These are just two examples. If the Bills want to stay in contention early this season, they're going to have to avoid committing penalties that effectively shoot themselves in the foot like that.
Overall Impressions: My overall impression for this game was that it was a good win, that our reserves played quite well - especially offensively - and that I'm extremely glad that the pre-season is now over. I thought the first-unit offense showed that it's just about ready for the regular season and their performance boosted my confidence a bit going into the Denver game. But I am scared about this defense - the Bills are going to have to control the clock as much as possible if they want to win games early. Get that ground game going, don't turn the ball over and shoot for 40 minutes of possession time. That's the key to winning games early.
The Bills will trim their roster from 75 players to 53 over the next two days; there is a 6:00 PM deadline to do so by Saturday evening. We'll be predicting these cuts before they're made, so stay tuned for a little roster analysis and be prepared to leave your thoughts on the pre-season and the upcoming cuts!