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Bills 23, Colts 19: 3 things we learned

Bills football returned on Saturday, with Buffalo securing their 10th preseason win in their last 11 tries

NFL: Preseason-Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills opened their 2023 preseason slate with a 24-19 win over the Indianapolis Colts at Highmark Stadium. It marked the Bills’ tenth win in their last 11 exhibition games under head coach Sean McDermott dating back to the 2019 preseason.

Buffalo overcame an early 13-10 second-half deficit to secure the win. They gave up the lead when a Kyle Allen pass deflected off of the hands of rookie wideout Tyrell Shavers and into the hands of Colts defensive back Darius Rush, who returned it 52 yards for the go-ahead score. A very strong performance from third-string quarterback Matt Barkley, who completed 12 of his first 13 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns (including one to Shavers, who made up for his error with a solid showing overall), put the game on ice for the Bills.

There’s never a ton that we can learn from preseason action, especially for a veteran-laden and successful team like the Bills, but that won’t stop us from jotting down a few notes about the first Buffalo football action since a dreary afternoon in January.

Cook, Murray continue strong summer

This takeaway is in no way absolutely influenced by preseason fantasy football research: strong training camp play from running backs James Cook and Latavius Murray continued in live game action, with the two backs pacing Buffalo’s offense throughout the first half.

Cook played the first two series with the starters, logging four carries for 20 yards, including an eight-yard touchdown jaunt to open the scoring in the first quarter following a Dane Jackson interception.

Murray took over for Cook and played for nearly the remainder of the first half, turning in five carries for 18 yards with the second-team offense, and also catching three passes for 21 yards. The veteran continued to look younger than his 33 years, as he makes a strong case to have a role of significance in Buffalo’s offense.

Damien Harris figures to remain part of the backfield conversation once he’s able to return to the field of play, but the Bills are looking for improvement at this position from the last few years, and Cook and Murray have given them reason to think that is coming.

Is clarity at WR3 needed?

The shape of Buffalo’s offense has changed somewhat this offseason — not just due to the aforementioned running back situation, but also with the investment made in first-round draft pick, tight end Dalton Kincaid. The Bills are widely expected to feature Kincaid prominently in the offense, and may lean a bit more on their seemingly improved backfield in an effort to keep quarterback Josh Allen healthy and fresh through a long season.

Still, the Bills remain the Bills, and they’re going to run a lot of 11 personnel, with three receivers on the field. They may not be as reliant on that personnel grouping as in years past, but it will still feature prominently — it does for every team in the NFL — and going into the season, the Bills still lack clarity with their third receiver role.

Saturday’s preseason game didn’t change that much. Deonte Harty, Trent Sherfield, and Khalil Shakir are the candidates most likely to emerge with the role on the most consistent basis. Consistency, however, may be the deciding factor. Harty and Sherfield were each targeted once with no receptions to show for it; Shakir was targeted four times, hauling in two nice grabs for 25 yards, but also dropping a gimme third-down conversion to end a drive. This role is very wide open, and it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if it stayed that way entering the regular season.

Talking linebacker play after No. 58

This was the first live game in which the Bills had a starting competition at the linebacker position in the last half-decade. Once top ‘backer Matt Milano departed the field after the second series, things were very hit or miss for the unit overall, with a low point coming in a two-minute drill at the end of the first half as Colts quarterback Gardner Minshew engineered an efficient scoring drive.

With so much still to decide, all we were looking for on Saturday was overall level of play — it was up and down, and typically difficult to discern considering playing competition — and for a player or two to stand out. That player was rookie Dorian Williams, who led Buffalo’s defense with seven tackles in his Bills debut, and played the fastest out of the myriad of players competing for time next to Milano.

Where the middle linebacker position ends up is really still anyone’s guess, and is perhaps the single most important positional battle for the team to work out, and the start of the preseason was fairly inauspicious for this battle.

What else is on your mind after this one, Bills fans?