The Buffalo Bills will take the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium tonight for the first time since a meaningless January finale when they take on the Cincinnati Bengals in their next-to-last preseason game of the year.
Buffalo is 1-1 this preseason, opening their schedule with a 42-17 loss in Washington, but rebounding last week in Toronto with a 34-21 win over Indianapolis. The Bengals are 2-1, rebounding from a 16-7 loss to Dallas in the Hall of Fame Game with wins over Denver (33-24) and Philadelphia (22-9).
After their thoroughly embarrassing loss to Washington, the Bills showed improvement simply by making big plays in the win over Indy. Everyone involved, however, knows that more improvements need to be made. These five points will be of particular interest as Buffalo squares off against Cincinnati early this evening.
Defending the run. Buffalo has been gashed by the run this preseason, giving up 126 yards per game - the sixth-highest total in the league. Of bigger concern are the big gains (eight runs of 10 or more yards) and the scores (three rushing touchdowns allowed). Cincinnati is a much, much better running team than either Washington or Indianapolis, and will be a much tougher test for Buffalo's still-beleaguered run defense.
Running the ball. Thanks in large part to the efforts of fourth-teamer Joique Bell, the Bills have been one of the league's dominant rushing teams this preseason, averaging 145 yards per game on the ground and scoring three times. Cincinnati, however, has been solid against the run this year, holding both Dallas (85) and Denver (37) to under 100 total rushing yards. This, too, will be a great test for the likes of C.J. Spiller, Bell and Chad Simpson.
More improvement from Edwards. Trent Edwards will get the start at quarterback once again, and could get as much as three quarters of playing time to improve on his 5-of-8, 93-yard, 1-TD performance against Indianapolis. Cincinnati has a very tough, very disciplined defense that can play out of the 4-3 or the 3-4, so this is a nice litmus test for Edwards to see how well he's reading the defense and how adept he can be at avoiding pressure and keeping his team out of negative plays. Another baby step forward would be an encouraging sign.
The pass rush. Buffalo has really struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks early in games this preseason without the aid of blitzes. In the last week, they've lost two outside linebackers to injury - one for the season (Danny Batten), and one for three weeks (Reggie Torbor). Chris Ellis will likely get the start alongside Chris Kelsay at outside linebacker this evening, with Aaron Maybin and Antonio Coleman certain to see plenty of playing time, as well. Buffalo needs one of these guys to emerge, and a standout performance by any of them would be a welcome sight.
Reserve secondary players. Reggie Corner was torched against Washington. Ellis Lankster was torched against Indianapolis. Cary Harris has been hurt. Ashton Youboty has looked good by comparison, but has not, himself, stood out in any glaring capacity. We've spoken at length about the depth of Buffalo's secondary, but to this point, those depth options have not been playing very well. Particularly for guys like Lankster and Youboty, strong performances are essential to close the preseason, and it starts tonight.
Anything else y'all will be watching for (if you can watch, that is) tonight? Leave it in the comments section.