Though they will be without WR Terrell Owens (toe) and DE Aaron Maybin (recently ended holdout), the Buffalo Bills are in Green Bay ready to take on the Packers in their third pre-season game of the season. Buffalo's starting units on both sides of the ball are expected to see roughly a quarter of action as their work load increases ever so slightly in preparation for the season.
The third pre-season game is traditionally the most important in that the starters play the most in that specific game, but this is not a traditional pre-season for the Bills. Buffalo will still have two more pre-season games following this game, and as such, the starters are expected to see their most extensive work of the pre-season next weekend in Pittsburgh.
But that's next week. Even without Owens and Maybin (both are expected to return to practice next week, by the way), there's plenty to pay attention to while watching tonight's matchup with the Packers. Just like last week (and every other week this season, as a matter of fact), we've got five such items that we'll be monitoring closely tonight. We suggest you do the same. Those items are after the jump.
Which DE will respond?
With Maybin officially on board and set to practice on Monday, Buffalo's current crop of defensive ends is now on watch: as many as three of them (but more likely two, or even one) could lose their jobs. In particular, Chris Ellis and Copeland Bryan will be losing reps to Maybin (though perhaps not all of them at first) in the very near future. Both players are coming off of excellent performances against Chicago a week ago today. Strong performances from either could keep them afloat not just in the battle for reps, but in the battle for roster spots. It also goes without mentioning that a strong performance in what is undeniably a difficult situation for two solid players will speak well to this coaching staff.
How will O-Line, offense look against a 3-4?
Part of the benefit of Buffalo's pre-season schedule is that the team plays back-to-back games against teams that employ 3-4 defensive fronts. The Packers are the first such team (with the Steelers being the other). It should be mentioned that this is Green Bay's first year running the system, but getting a look at any version of this front should be beneficial, as Trent Edwards & Company will see this defense six times this regular season from division opponents alone.
Will the team struggle to move the ball against the 3-4, as they did in 2008? How comfortable will Edwards look running the no-huddle against a slightly more complex defense? Perhaps most importantly, how will the re-tooled offensive line handle bigger big men and lighter, faster pass rushers? We won't get definitive answers to these questions from one quarter of football, but we should get the beginnings to answers.
The WR Rotation
Owens is sidelined. James Hardy remains on the PUP list. We heard from reliable sources last week that had WR Steve Johnson been healthy, he could have started in place of Owens, leaving Josh Reed to slot duties. Johnson, however, missed the Chicago game with a rib injury; after practicing all week, however, Johnson is likely to make his pre-season debut tonight. Will he start? It's certainly something worth watching, as it would in part indicate that Buffalo isn't completely comfortable using Reed as the primary fill-in on the outside should either Owens or Lee Evans miss a game that counts.
Young Linebacker Depth
We had this item on our list of must-watches last week, but it's full disclosure time: that didn't happen. Chalk it up to the distractions of being at a sporting event in person. At any rate, the battle for the last (likely) two roster spots at linebacker is perhaps the most ferocious battle on the entire roster, with five players making legitimate arguments to be kept. Not only will we be watching the play of the team's young linebackers closely, but the order in which they enter the game is key, too.
At time of publish, it is still unclear whether or not Byrd, the team's second-round pick in this past April's NFL Draft, will see his first live game action of the season. Byrd has only one week of practices under his belt after returning from sports hernia surgery; still, if the plan is for Maybin to play next Saturday's pre-season game on one week of practice, why should Byrd be treated any differently if healthy? All indications are that Byrd will suit up tonight. A strong performance could hasten the departure of 2006 fourth-round pick Ko Simpson.
Now you know what we'll be watching. Let us know what you're interested in in the comments section.