It was not a perfect night at Ralph Wilson Stadium, but "not perfect" doesn't mean "bad" - and the Buffalo Bills were a far cry from bad in defeating the Chicago Bears 27-20 in their first home pre-season game of the season. Several young Bills turned in big plays, the team had good showings in key areas, and a few questions were answered (in a not-set-in-stone way, of course) along the way.
To say the DVR failed epically this evening would be a dramatic undersell. Without getting into the specifics - I like my blood pressure right where it's at now, thanks - let's just say that I, personally, am only going to have one shot at seeing this game. My thoughts on some of the big issues are after the jump, and we'll be getting more in-depth over the coming days.
No-huddle needs Owens
QB Trent Edwards played into the second quarter, completing all ten of his passing attempts for 79 yards, while also taking two sacks. The Bills, however, struggled in an area all too familiar to Bills fans - getting receivers open. Edwards was 10-of-10 in part because he was forced to check to short throws (though he did have three nice strikes to WR Lee Evans for 54 yards). Chicago's corners were playing Bills receivers tight, and as a result, it caused a few problems for the Bills' aerial attack.
Where Owens was missed most, however, was in the red zone. Once again, the first-team offense struggled to put the ball in the paint, settling for a 28-yard Rian Lindell field goal on their only trip into the red area. Owens helps the team between the twenties too, obviously, but the Bills had 46-yard and 60-yard drives on the evening. They should be able to move the ball in the event that they're without a major weapon. But though the no-huddle kept the Bears on their toes tonight, it wasn't as efficient as it should be. Without both receivers in the lineup, the offense will struggle.
Ryan Fitzpatrick can play, it turns out
It was tough not to be impressed with Ryan Fitzpatrick tonight. His units struggled in the red area, too, but his 13-of-16 for 143 yards performance should quiet some of his tougher critics, if only for a few days. He has looked in command of the no-huddle attack throughout the pre-season, and he made some absolutely beautiful throws in the face of pressure tonight. In particular, a 23-yard seam route to TE Jonathan Stupar was a thing of beauty - that's a difficult throw to make, and he made it look easy. Again, it wasn't perfect - but this was a very encouraging performance.
Offensive Line still a work in progress
For the most part tonight, I thought the starting line of Langston Walker, Andy Levitre, Geoff Hangartner, Eric Wood and Brad Butler provided excellent pass protection. Edwards generally had plenty of time to throw; though he was sacked twice, one was on an overload blitz that Edwards failed to read hot, and the other was possibly Edwards' only indecisive play of the night. Otherwise, it was smooth sailing.
It's pretty clear that this no-huddle will be pass-oriented - 13 of the first-unit offense's 24 plays were passes, after all, and the way the Bills are running the ball right now, they'll need to throw early in the season until the line comes together a bit more. The Bills ran for 123 yards on the evening, sure, but it took 43 rushing attempts to get there. That's 2.86 yards per attempt, folks - and that total plummeted to 2.48 yards per carry for the team's running backs. The pass blocking is solid enough to be getting on with; we need to see a few more running lanes, and hopefully, we'll see the sooner rather than later.
All in all, however, the Bills still picked up 375 yards of offense while eating up 38 minutes of game clock. They were helped by some big plays defensively, but without their biggest offensive star, there were plenty of encouraging signs offensively tonight.
Corners turn in big plays
Leodis McKelvin may be getting torched by Evans and Owens in practice, but he's acquitting himself nicely against actual opponents. After logging an interception last weekend in the Hall of Fame Game, McKelvin again intercepted a pass - this time a deep throw from Jay Cutler intended for Devin Hester. Leo also had a pass breakup on a third-and-short play to snuff out Chicago's opening drive.
Two picks in two games wasn't good enough to outshine rookie Ellis Lankster, however. Lankster intercepted two passes on the evening within one minute of game time, setting up two consecutive fourth-quarter touchdowns to put the game on ice for the Bills. If you were skeptical of Lankster's routine interceptions in practice, this performance should put your mind at ease. Lankster dropped a potential third interception as well.
Undrafted rookie free agent Lydell Sargeant got in on the act, too, pulling in a pick late to seal the victory. In all, Bills corners had four picks on the evening - even though it should have been five, as Reggie Corner dropped a gift-wrapped toss from Cutler early in the game. The corners were great, but they were helped out by a surprisingly solid Bills pass rush.
Pass rush has a pulse - seriously
McKelvin's early interception would not have been possible without heat on Cutler from Chris Kelsay - yes, that Chris Kelsay, the much-maligned end who was essentially booed during pre-game introductions tonight. (Seriously - lighten up, Bills fans. Who the hell boos at a pre-season game? On Kid's Night? Sheesh.) Kelsay didn't get close enough to sack Cutler on the play, but he was bearing down, causing Cutler to make a poor decision. It should also be noted that Kelsay's pressure came on a counter move - perhaps that tae kwon do training is paying off.
Second-team ends Chris Ellis and Copeland Bryan had nice nights as well. On back-to-back plays, Ellis and Bryan recorded sacks on Bears QB Caleb Hanie. Ellis' sack was a thing of beauty, bending the edge and catching Hanie from behind as he stepped up into the pocket. Bryan forced a fumble on his sack, which Ellis promptly recovered. The pass rush itself was responsible for the fifth and final Bears turnover of the evening. I don't know if Aaron Maybin was watching this contest, but Ellis and Bryan are supposed to make his understudies. While he waits for a deal, his understudies are making plays. Just sayin'.
I have much more to talk about, and I'd like to flesh some of this out a bit more, but it's late, I'm wired beyond belief, and my fingers are shaking. Let's hear it, folks - what were your impressions of this game? I'll leave you with this - barring injury, which has derailed many a Bills team in the past, this Bills team has a chance to be very, very surprising. The pieces are in place. I am genuinely excited.