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Bills vs. Colts: Trends after NFL preseason Week 1 action

Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills defeated the Indianapolis Colts during Week 1 of NFL preseason action, thanks to several key standout performances. While the 23-19 victory is encouraging, there were plenty of concerns to take away from Saturday’s win at Highmark Stadium.

In his postgame press conference, head coach Sean McDermott was pleased with what he saw as “moments of our standard that we hold ourselves to,” and was particularly pleased with the four-minute offense at game’s end. But McDermott expressed concern in saying of those moments “not enough though, right. We’ve gotta be more consistent, starting with penalties. More disciplined, pre-snap penalties because that hurts ya. Hurts ya field position-wise, hurts ya when you have a team in 2nd & Long.”

So, who’s trending up and who’s trending down after one week of preseason action?

Trending up: CB Dane Jackson

Trust in Dane Jackson is a very real thing with McDermott. Jackson came into Saturday’s game having battled throughout training camp against a pair of the team’s 2022 NFL Draft picks: Kaiir Elam (Round 1) and Christian Benford (Round 6). When the defense took the field for its first preseason snaps, Jackson was the starting CB2, instead of Elam or Benford. Whether that was due to his status as a veteran remains to be seen. But after picking off rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson, Jackson promptly took a seat, his day complete. The pair of Elam and Benford were left to battle it out the remainder of the game.

While the CB2 battle might seem anything other than settled at this point, it would appear that Dane Jackson has a clear lead on the Bills’ 2022 draft picks. Take that for what you will — a referendum on last year’s first-round pick is a popular option, but so is the tenacity of Jackson and now also Benford. At minimum — Jackson is further proof that One Bills Drive knows how to draft and develop cornerbacks. Don’t be surprised if Jackson’s experience and jack-of-all trades is the preferred choice to begin the regular season for a team with very lofty goals.

Trending down: CBs Kaiir Elam/Christian Benford

While avoiding a rehash of what’s been written above, it’s still important to remember that neither Kaiir Elam nor Christian Benford have been able to separate themselves from the pack. Elam has the heavy weight of expectation on his shoulders as a first-round pick. He’s most adept in press-man coverage, and he plays a very aggressive type of defense. Elam’s play with the ones in camp was both frequent and oft-praised. Yet, it’s possible his abilities in zone are still too much of a liability for McDermott to trust him as the team’s full time CB2.

With Benford, he’s already a success story for the Bills, but he has limitations of his own. He’s not a savvy man cover corner, and he’s not going to keep pace with the track stars in the NFL. But he is a heady and versatile player for zone schemes. Talk of him moving to safety has been just that: talk. With the addition of safety Taylor Rapp this offseason on a one-year deal, it further stalls Benford’s potential there. I’d argue that with Hamlin returning and the addition of Rapp (who’s likely auditioning for a contract extension), Benford’s opportunity at safety long term has taken a huge hit. His being unable to secure the CB2 opportunity isn’t necessarily a reflection of poor play, but it does illustrate the idea of his role perhaps only ever being situational.

Trending up: WR Andy Isabella

Isabella was one of last players to join the Buffalo Bills this offseason, having signed at the end of July. What we know about Isabella has much to do with speed. Incredible speed, in fact. Isabella has been clocked at 4.31 in the 40-yard dash. Prior to his arrival, the Bills didn’t possess anyone with that sort of short-field burst.

Isabella’s signing felt like nothing more than a move to fill roster space for camp. Following Saturday’s performance (3 catches on 3 targets for 42 yards), it’s clear Isabella has quickly built chemistry. During the broadcast, mention was made of Isabella becoming a favorite target within the Bills’ quarterback room.

Trending down: QB Kyle Allen

No doubt about it — it’s unfair to expect too much of Kyle Allen after his first live-game action with the Bills. Time and again we’re told of the complexity of Buffalo’s offensive scheme, that it demands a lot of a quarterback and experience and continued reps are required to fully master the play book. So it’s best not to place too heavy a Bills Mafia burden on Kyle Allen as this point.

That said, it is natural to be concerned when viewed through the lens of him having to start meaningful games anytime soon. Certainly, no one available or otherwise will mirror what Josh Allen does on a football field, but it’s reasonable to expect that the team’s QB2 can manage a game. In truth, Kyle Allen’s numbers weren’t terrible without that pick-six — he went 8-of-15 for 122 yards otherwise. But that pick-six happened, and it stands out. Buffalo of course boasts an offense capable of scoring massive amounts of points in short order, but much of that’s due to the chemistry Josh Allen has built with key receivers. Right now, that’s nowhere to be found with Kyle Allen.

Trending up: QB Matt Barkley

For all the reasons to be both concerned and level-headed about Kyle Allen, the same applies to Matt Barkley. Yes, Barkley played a phenomenal game, going 14-of-15 for 172 yards with two touchdowns. Yes, it came against many of the deepest depths of a green Colts roster.

But what you can’t take away from Barkley is his NFL experience and knowledge of the team’s offense. Certainly, better competition in the regular season is likely to take away Barkley’s bread-and-butter short game once they adapt to his style of play. But at this moment, Barkley has better command of the team’s offense, and feels most-suited to backing up Josh Allen at the onset of the regular season.

Trending down: WR Khalil Shakir

Shakir has a bit of a cult following, and many within Bills Mafia want to see him with an expanded role in the offense for 2023. He’s currently locked in a battle with free-agent wide receiver additions Deonte Harty and Trent Sherfield. Shakir has turned some heads this summer, but the same can be said about both Sherfield and Harty. On Saturday, Sherfield and Harty only had one look apiece — both of which fell incomplete.

Shakir, however, had four looks, hauling in just two catches for 25 yards. Like his inconsistent camp this summer, Shakir may prove too much of a wild card to earn an expanded role on offense at this point. It will be interesting to see how snaps are divided between Harty and Sherfield, and if that eats into Shakir’s opportunities in the next two preseason games. It’s not necessarily that Shakir is on the bubble at this point, but it would be great to see more consistent play from Shakir before the regular season begins.

Trending up: A.J. Klein

Klein would appear to now be in a battle for a chance to start at MIKE linebacker. During Saturday’s action, Klein was running with the twos. That’s a new development since training camp ended. Like Barkley, Klein represents veteran experience. He and McDermott go back to their days together with the Carolina Panthers. It’s very possible that McDermott decides Klein is the best option to begin the season at MIKE, especially now that Bernard is injured with no timetable for return.

Concerning trend: Lack of starting clarity at key defensive positions

This one feels a bit unfair, given the massive amount of inexperienced players who took the field for Buffalo’s first preseason game. Yes, the defense played well in spots, and that’s without some key starters suiting up. But the beginning of the game featured many starters, and other players vying for starting roles. Teams vying for a chance to play in the Super Bowl need to have clear starters at key positions. The Bills’ base defense is nickel, a package that’s become en vogue since the league became almost exclusively about the pass. That requires two very sound linebackers. Buffalo currently has one in Matt Milano, but they’ve been unable to replace Tremaine Edmunds since he bid adieu for the Windy City. They weren’t going to have a plug-and-play overnight, but they also had to know retaining Edmunds was going to be nearly as impossible as it proved true. Training camp featured a healthy competition between Terrell Bernard and Tyrel Dodson. Bernard is now sidelined with a hamstring injury that McDermott noted could take time to heal. Dodson is now likely to battle it out against Baylon Spector and A.J. Klein, with two weeks to determine a starting MIKE linebacker.

The same issue holds true at CB2, as we’ve already discussed. But what both of those situations mean, is that the team doesn’t have a consistent starter to build chemistry with and solidify packages around less than a month away from taking on the New York Jets. It’s rightful to be a bit concerned about Buffalo’s defense at this point.