The Buffalo Bills finished their preseason schedule with a 28-23 loss Thursday night to the Detroit Lions. Buffalo finishes their summer slate with a 2-2 record, some cautious optimism surrounding the offense, and a host of question marks defensively and along both lines. These are, in my humble opinion, the five biggest story lines surrounding the team with training camp and the preseason in the books (in no particular order).
This is Trent Edwards' team. Chan Gailey planned on having an open quarterback competition, but Edwards was so far ahead of the field right out of the gate that he was the only QB to take first-team reps all summer. He ended the preseason with a 102.6 quarterback rating, completing 28 of 41 passes (68.3%) for 370 yards (9.02 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns and one interception. Gailey knows Edwards' strengths - picking his spots for the big play attempt, managing the flow of the game, and being accurate with the football. He'll design an offense that maximizes Edwards' protection, keeps his reads simple, and allows him to most effectively get the ball into the hands of his playmakers. If that works, Buffalo could field a league-average offense in 2010. Maybe. Fingers crossed.
C.J. Spiller will be the focal point of this offense. Spiller ended his first professional preseason averaging 4.7 yards per rush, 11.7 yards per reception and scoring three rushing touchdowns. There's little question that he is Buffalo's most explosive offensive threat, and the team's most talented player. Spiller will be the catalyst for this offense because opponents will do everything they can to try to limit his effectiveness. The rookie will still make plays, but more importantly, he'll create mismatches for the likes of Lee Evans, Roscoe Parrish and veteran runners Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch.
Health is a critical factor everywhere, but in particular along the offensive line. The starting line of Demetrius Bell, Andy Levitre, Geoff Hangartner, Eric Wood and Cornell Green still haven't played together much, and all of them had their share of failures this preseason. As a unit, however, they functioned well enough for the first-team offense to score 41 points (seven scoring drives) in 16 possessions. That's not great production by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a start. Buffalo's reserve linemen, however, were highly suspect in the first three preseason games, and then were schooled by Detroit's reserves. This starting five - along with swing tackle Jamon Meredith - needs to stay healthy. Cross your fingers.
Don't expect to see a ton of 3-4 in 2010. Buffalo spent a lot of time playing with four down linemen defensively this preseason, and closed in Detroit by playing a base 4-3 in a brief appearance by the first-team defense. Buffalo's linebackers are the weak point of the defense; don't think that George Edwards doesn't know that. They're already using four down linemen in nickel and dime packages, but they're versed enough in both schemes that you'll see both this year. Just expect to see more four-lineman looks, with 3-4 looks sprinkled in to disguise blitzes and keep opponents honest.
Special teams is still a work in progress, too. This goes beyond kick and punt coverage, which improved only to the point of toleration in the Detroit finale. Clearly, the Bills need to become much more consistent and assignment sound in executing the coverage schemes drawn up by coordinator Bruce DeHaven. The return game - poor blocking in particular - needs a serious amount of attention, as well. Even punter Brian Moorman has been striking the ball inconsistently. Long the strength of this team, Buffalo's special teams are as much of a work in progress as the offense and defense. Expect growing pains.