The Buffalo Bills are playing their fourth preseason game of the season this afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium, but for the rest of the NFL - including today's opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - it's the all-important third game. The week in which a team's starters prepare as if it's regular season action, and play deep into the contest.
The Bills will be following that rule today, so anyone in attendance in Orchard Park should expect to see starters on both teams play at least a full half of football. With the added importance of this game, our preview - which includes some helpful information provided by Sander Philipse of Bucs Nation - will focus on the top units.
Buffalo tweaked its offensive line this week. Seantrel Henderson, a rookie seventh-round pick, has emerged as the favorite to start at right tackle now that Cordy Glenn is back in the lineup. Henderson's ascent means that tackle Erik Pears has moved inside to right guard, where he replaces Kraig Urbik.
Gerald McCoy and a talented Bucs defensive line will give that new-look front a stiff test, especially inside, where Pears, Eric Wood, and Chris Williams will be competing against one of the best defensive tackles in the business.
"McCoy is a terrific player and the best three-technique defensive tackle in the NFL," Philipse tells me. "If one of your starting guards manages to shut down McCoy - now that would be impressive."
Things are a bit less ironclad on the rest of the line, however, says Philipse, even though the team spent big money to acquire defensive end Michael Johnson this offseason.
"(McCoy) can't carry this defensive line on his own," Philipse says. "Johnson is a tremendous athlete and a versatile player, but he's not a true sack artist. And opposite him, Adrian Clayborn hasn't been able to beat offensive tackles with any kind of consistency since his rookie season. The Bucs have some talented pieces in place and one dominant player, but it's not a cohesive, disruptive unit."
Still, the individual talent - particularly with McCoy and Johnson - will be a good litmus test for Bills linemen in new positions today.
Bills in coverage
One of the big concerns for the Bills heading into the regular season is their ability to cover. That was a strength of the defense a year ago, but with Jairus Byrd now in New Orleans and Kiko Alonso out for the season, there are major questions in the back seven.
The Bills are slightly healthier in their secondary - and will hopefully be full strength by Week 1 - and again, the Bucs provide a talented trio of pass catchers against which to gauge Buffalo's progress in Vincent Jackson and rookies Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
"Evans has been as expected: big, physical, and raw," says Philipse. "He's had some standout moments both in training camp and in the preseason, and a lot of moments that remind you he's a rookie coming from a very simplified college offense who still has a lot to learn. One play exemplifies his impression so far: last week, he caught a 10-yard pass short of the sticks, broke a safety's tackle, ran down the sideline, and had the ball punched out inches before he crossed the goal-line."
"On the other hand, Seferian-Jenkins has really impressed the coaching staff," Philipse continued. "He's been a dominant force in training camp despite missing most of the offseason due to a foot injury and the University Washington's academic schedule. He needs to improve his blocking, but he looks like he'll be a very good contributor sooner rather than later."
The Bucs have some issues along the offensive line that they're trying to sort out, and veteran Josh McCown is under center for the team after leaving Chicago via free agency.
"I can see why (Lovie Smith) was decisive (about McCown): everyone even remotely involved with the Bucs has raved about McCown's leadership in the building, his selfless attitude to the job and to Mike Glennon, and his preparation," Philipse says of the Bucs' new quarterback. "None of that matters if he can't play well, but he has looked better than Glennon in training camp, and looks like he'll be a solid game manager, provided his offensive line doesn't collapse entirely."
The focus will be on offense and defense tonight, of course, but the Bills have proverbial "starters" on special teams, too, and players on the roster bubble will be looking to make an impression in the third phase to bolster their chances of making the team.
Already, the Bills have lost two of their top five special teams rep-takers from the first three preseason games: receiver Kevin Elliott was released, and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester landed on IR with a torn patellar tendon. Sylvester, in particular, looked like he was going to be a special teams mainstay for the Bills, especially early in the season.
Take a peek at the list of top rep-takers on special teams from the first three weeks. Nearly every name on that list is fighting for a job on the team. If any of these players take a ton of teams reps against the Bucs - and especially if they perform well with the opportunity - it will bode very well for their chances of making the final roster.
That's our list of what to watch for; what would you add to it, Bills fans?