Washington Redskins vs. Buffalo Bills: 4 Things to Watch for in Preseason Opener
Preseason games give fans their first taste of NFL football for the new year, but they can also tease fans into having false expectations for their teams and favorite camp sleepers.
The first week of preseason rarely has regular-season quality of play on display, mainly because starters get pulled after the first or second series. They get just enough time to get re-acclimated to game speed, but not enough time for true evaluations to be made by the coaching staff.
Regardless of your opinions about the setup of preseason and the nature of its purpose, it does serve one in allowing camp battles to be decided in a game setting. Here are four things to watch for during Thursday night's preseason opener against the Robert Griffin III-led Washington Redskins.
The No. 2 Receiver Battle
The No. 2 wide receiver spot opposite Stevie Johnson has been widely covered by both local and national writers. Is it going to be Donald Jones or Marcus Easley or T.J. Graham or even the wily vet Derek Hagan? No one knows for sure, including the coaching staff, which makes this battle both exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.
Each candidate for the position has his pros and cons. Jones is maddeningly inconsistent, but still owns some of the better speed on the Buffalo Bills' roster. Easley has the best physical tools of the group, but he still hasn't played a regular-season down after two pro seasons because of injury. Graham has track speed, but is as unpolished as it gets when it comes to routes that do not require running in a straight line. Hagan is a solid route-runner with okay hands, but has been well-traveled around the league for good reason.
So what better way to choose a starter from a pool of somewhat uninspiring candidates than a good old-fashioned preseason duke out?
Targets are going to be few for all of the candidates, so it will be important to watch what each player does with their chances. Touchdowns and tough catches help sell fans on a player, but coaches will be analyzing that players are lining up correctly and doing all the little things right. Teams full of those kinds of players are the ones that make the playoffs and ultimately win championships.
Slot Corner Spot
While the first preseason game has not been played, most have been led to believe that first-round pick Stephon Gilmore and second-year player Aaron Williams will man the outside corner spots. Aaron Williams' spot was said to be up for grabs entering camp, but I believe the true battle is for the No. 3 corner spot.
The progression of offenses in the NFL to a pass-heavy game has made the need for three or four talented corners a necessity for those who wish to be successful. For some teams, the slot guy leads the team in targets by the end of the season because of their ability to spread the field and own the middle.
The moans of Bills fans can be heard from far and wide every April when the team again selects multiple defensive backs to improve depth. Not everyone sees it this way, but the aforementioned importance for quality defensive backs has had Bills brass on a search for three starting corners for quite some time. Many of those picks have been swings and misses, but there is hope that this will be the year they find such a combination.
Terrence McGee may be the most obvious choice because of his veteran prowess and ability to stay with quick receivers. However, there is no guarantee he is still on the roster when rosters are parred down to 53.
Leodis McKelvin has been a colossal disappointment considering where he was picked in the 2008 draft. He has clear physical skills that are often negated by even clearer lack of football IQ and decision making. Some do feel that he just could be the right fit inside.
Justin Rogers was my original pick for the position, but the former FCS All-American has been hampered with an injury in camp. The only thing Rogers has going for him is that he is most likely to be on the Bills' roster past this season unless McKelvin gets a clue.
Rogers may not see much action in Week 1 because of the injury, but it will be interesting to see the split of snaps between McGee and McKelvin.
Anthony Armstrong will likely be starting in the slot for the Redskins tomorrow, so keep a close eye on who spends more time opposite him with the first-team defense.
Nickel or Dime?
New Bills defensive coordinator, former Dolphins and Bears head coach, Dave Wannstedt has re-implemented a base 4-3 defense to match the Bills defensive personnel better. In past years, the coaching staff had been trying to fit square pegs into round holes by trying to run an ineffective 3-4/4-3 hybrid scheme.
With the Bills linebacker situation still up in the air, Wannstedt is said to be looking at running with a dime package in obvious passing situations. The reason for that is to take the Kirk Morrison/Arthur Moats strong-side spot off the field and put Bryan Scott in as a hybrid safety/linebacker.
Scott is undersized for a linebacker and oversized for a safety, which causes him to struggle a bit in pass coverage. However, he has succeeded for the most part covering the opponent's tight end, except for the double helping of Gronk last season. With an effective four-man pass rush, the Bills defense can afford to take a linebacker off the field for Scott.
Strong-Side Linebacker Battle
The starting strong-side linebacker spot is really the only spot on the 2012 Bills defense that is still up for grabs.
Kirk Morrison entered offseason workouts as the favorite by default because of his starting experience in a 4-3 defense with Jacksonville. Arthur Moats was considered a distant second and not a lock for a final roster spot with the drafting of Florida State product Nigel Bradham.
Moats has jumped all around the Bills defense because of the constant shuffling of defensive schemes. Although his lack of experience at the linebacker position makes his prospects at winning the starting job slim from the get-go, his athleticism and pass-rushing ability could give him an edge over Morrison in the long run.
According to recent reports from Mark Ludwiczak, CBSSports.com, those very intangibles actually could give Moats the nod as a starter sooner rather than later. The competition is far from over.