The Buffalo Bills played football under the lights at Ralph Wilson Stadium last night, losing 25-24 to the Carolina Panthers in their first of four exhibition season games. A review of the Bills' preseason opener - with an emphasis on the first- and second-team offense - coming up just as soon as my voice cracks with excitement calling a one-yard reception by Matthew Mulligan.
Quarterback floors vs. ceilings
I'm not going to say much about EJ Manuel, other than I thought he played fairly well given that he ran third in the pecking order. There is a certain skittishness to Manuel's game, especially in terms of pocket presence, that is far more muted with his two competitors, but it's difficult to evaluate him in that setting. It's also hard to nitpick what was a good outing for him. It would be nice if he saw time with the second-team offense again during preseason action. First team would be fine, too.
Matt Cassel was solid; there's little to nothing to complain about regarding his showing, too. He is a known quantity at this point: he'll hit the short stuff, maintain an even keel in the huddle, and keep the offense from sinking. He has the highest floor of any Bills quarterback, and that alone has to be appealing to a team that is otherwise poised to win. But man, if Tyrod Taylor keeps playing the way he did against Carolina (yes, he did all of his work against backups), he dramatically decreases the Bills' margin of error as an offense.
The sample size on Taylor is still very small, and we need to see what he can do against a first-team defense other than Buffalo's. (He's starting next week's preseason game against a talented Cleveland Browns defense, in case you missed it.) Against Carolina, however, he was the best quarterback on the field in terms of pocket presence, avoiding free rushers and keeping his eyes downfield, and of course making plays with his legs. He ran a lot, but he did not look like a run-first quarterback. Most importantly, his throws were more accurate than anticipated, including two of three deep balls. Taylor is the Bills' best playmaker at quarterback. If he can continue to avoid negative plays and keep the Bills' offense out of bad situations both pre- and post-snap, his skill set makes Buffalo's offense better than Cassel's veteran cool can. Period.
Taylor has a chance to take control of this competition this week. He's been somewhat up-and-down in camp, but if he can maintain momentum and play well this Thursday in prime time, it's going to be difficult for Manuel to make up ground on the field, and Cassel in the court of public opinion.
Strong debut up front
More encouraging than the quarterback play was the play of the offensive line, and particularly in the running game. All three of the Bills' second-year linemen - likely starting right tackle Seantrel Henderson, plus likely backups Cyrus Kouandjio and Cyril Richardson - appear improved this year. Kouandjio, in particular, is well ahead of where he was as a rookie, and had a couple of nice blocks in the red zone on touchdown drives. Richardson still struggles in pass protection, but not nearly as badly as a year ago, and he also looked good pulling in the running game.
The real star of the evening, to my eye, was rookie right guard John Miller, however. I'd argue now, even with only one preseason game in the books, that the Bills have most improved offensively at that position. Miller ranged between solid and excellent against Carolina, displaying good power at the point of attack and solid balance in matriculating to the second level to throw key blocks. He was assignment-sound, made solid contact at every opportunity, and was just all-around very good. If he can keep that up as the defenders in front of him improve and systems become more complicated, the Bills will be in great shape on the right side of their line.
All three line units need to be much better in pass protection, however. All four Bills quarterbacks dealt with too much pressure up front - which, in a weird way, helped Taylor be the standout performer on the evening, given his particular skill set.
More notes (offense)
You can bet that Greg Roman will be lobbying for Doug Whaley to scour the waiver wire at tight end. They are not good enough behind the starter. Mulligan is the only consistent blocker; MarQueis Gray and Chris Gragg do well enough with a head of steam, but in-line, they are liabilities. None of them have flashed as receivers, either, with Gray and Nick O'Leary drawing public scorn from Rex Ryan post-game for key drops.
I'll agree with LeSean McCoy that LeSean McCoy could have played better. On the first play of the game, he missed a massive cutback lane created by Miller that could have yielded huge yardage, and overall he seemed to be pressing and impatient. He'll improve.
Karlos Williams is receiving a lot of praise today, and deservedly so. He's a tough runner and a good athlete. Bryce Brown outplayed him last night, though. Brown is clearly in the doghouse due to his fumbling problems, but when he's not screwing that up, he's still a good runner. He has an uphill climb to make the team, but three more looks like last night will make that decision very difficult.
Buffalo's talented receivers are a bit frustrating to watch at times. Taylor threw a nice deep ball toward Marquise Goodwin in the second quarter that Goodwin did not adjust to well enough; he made up for it a bit with a nice catch-and-run on the next drive. Chris Hogan has reportedly had a case of the drops all throughout camp, and that continued last night on a slightly-behind-him ball from Cassel. Both are better than they appeared last night, and it would be great if one or both could up the consistency level a tad.
Ryan and Dennis Thurman did not do much with alignments - more on that below - and only blitzed occasionally last night. But they also left both of their starting cornerbacks out on an island, as they'll do during the regular season, and both Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby had up-and-down evenings.
Gilmore jumped a route on a called blitz and might have had an interception without a nice break-up play by Kelvin Benjamin, but he was also flagged for a pass interference play in which he didn't turn his head toward the ball quickly enough, and slipped making a tackle on a hook to Benjamin, yielding extra yardage. As has been the case for Gilmore through the entirety of his career, he looks like a great cornerback in the making, but who is still a bit rough around the edges.
Darby was targeted early and often by Panthers quarterbacks. He registered a few nice plays, including an excellent pass break-up in the second quarter, but he also gave up a touchdown to Benjamin, plus two deep throws. In all three of those cases, Darby looked like a rookie defending savvy veterans; he was in position to make a play, but subtle moves from the receivers created extra separation at the last second, and Darby was unable to recover. He'll learn those nuances. In the meantime, he is the clear liability in Buffalo's secondary, and with Andrew Luck, Andre Johnson, and T.Y. Hilton coming to town on September 13, you can bet they'll have No. 28 in their sights.
The Bills did not do much in the way of exotic looks on Friday night - it's the preseason, after all - but the generic 4-3 alignment they came out in caught a few people by surprise.
I know 3-4 defenses employ a lot more 4-3 alignements these days than in the past but at a glance the Bills look like a 4-3 defense still.— Stephen White (@sgw94) August 15, 2015
Manny Lawson is now a starting linebacker for the Bills, and he spent most of the evening off of the line of scrimmage, even being forced to run up the seam with a wide receiver on a deep throw that Cam Newton just barely overthrew. There was no game-planning last night, and Carolina's formations spread Buffalo's base defense thin on a couple of occasions. That led to reactions like you see above, in which the Bills appeared to be running a 4-3 base.
And really, that's what they are - a base 4-3 defense. But Lawson's unique, in that he can wear so many different hats, similar to how Calvin Pace and Adalius Thomas played for Ryan in previous stints. When the Bills have everyone healthy, they can use their base personnel to line up in a one-gap 3-4, in a 4-3 Under, in a 46, or that basic 4-3 look. That's the hallmark of Ryan: use the same personnel grouping to run whatever defense he wants. When they flex into nickel looks, the only player that comes off the field is Lawson, who makes way for Nickell Robey.
More notes (defense)
A knee injury for Corbin Bryant is not expected to be serious, but it's certainly frustrating, as he has been playing very well. Hopefully, he'll be back on the field soon. The Bills are going to need him on the field. He's a virtual lock to make the team.
Bacarri Rambo made it onto the field as the fourth safety well ahead of Jonathan Meeks, and he made a few nice plays. He also looked good on special teams. Pencil him in as the front-runner to land the fourth safety job, for now.
Nigel Bradham looks like he's poised to become a star in 2015. He can do it all: he can stack and shed against the run, he's a hitter, he'll make plays as a pass rusher, and he has the range and speed to hang in pass coverage. Ryan is going to move him all over the alignment and put him in a position to make plays, and Bradham will make them. He looked explosive against Carolina.
Even more notes (special teams)
The first field goal attempt of the evening, an awful attempt by Jordan Gay, did not appear to be the kickoff specialist's fault - it looked like a bad hold by punter Colton Schmidt. Mercifully, we won't need to worry about Gay kicking field goals once Dan Carpenter returns to full health, but other than that gaffe, Gay was on point.
Buffalo needs to find a way to keep Marcus Thigpen on this roster. That's a tough pill to swallow, since he's exclusively a return threat (and maybe even only a punt return threat), but he's so good at it that it'd be even tougher to part with the skill. On a team that is expected to play in tight games thanks to their quarterback situation, a player like Thigpen can make a big difference.
For the love of all that is holy, football gods, stop giving Marcus Easley knee injuries. Buffalo's top special teams player crumbled to the ground covering the first punt of the evening, and did not return to the field after that. Ryan said post-game that it's an MCL injury, but a minor one that shouldn't prevent Easley from returning to the field soon. Still... hasn't he been through enough on the injury front?
What else caught your eye last night, Bills fans?