Two exhibition games in, and it's clear that the Buffalo Bills still have some work to do.
Yes, it's just the preseason. There is no better testament to the irrelevance of preseason win-loss records than the 2008 Detroit Lions—yes, those 0-16 Detroit Lions—going 4-0 in the preseason that year. The Indianapolis Colts haven't won more than one preseason tilt since 2004 yet remained a perennial Super Bowl contender until Peyton Manning's injury.
Still, these games can be of importance for teams and their coaching staffs. They're about more than simply cutting the roster.
Here's what Buffalo needs to see improvement on:
Linebackers in Pass Coverage
Simply put, the Bills' first-team offense got eviscerated by Christian Ponder over the middle of the field in Friday's 36-14 defeat. Eviscerated by a second-year pro who does not exactly have a coterie of weapons at his disposal. What he does have are wideouts with speed, and they did whatever they wanted in the first half.
Buffalo's front four of Mario Williams, Marcel Dareus, Kyle Williams and Mark Anderson were getting constant pressure on Ponder, collapsing the pocket and forcing him to get rid of the ball quickly.
When he did, fleet-footed wideouts Percy Harvin and Jerome Simpson torched Buffalo's linebackers.
Minnesota's first big play of the game, a quick dumpoff to Harvin, went for 21 yards because when cornerback Stephon Gilmore couldn't get off his block, linebacker Bryan Scott was far too slow in coming over from the weak-side spot to contain.
Later on that drive, on 2nd-and-13, Ponder threw just over the outstretched arms of Mark Anderson to find Jerome Simpson on an inside slant for a 34-yard gain. The play was able to go for 34 yards because Nick Barnett was caught flat-footed in the middle of the field and had no chance to change angle and attempt to make a tackle.
Barnett was caught flat-footed and out of position a second time on that drive when he bit with one step towards the line of scrimmage on a play-action rollout, allowing Ponder to find fullback Jerome Felton in the flat for a one-yard score as Barnett trailed behind.
Now, as does every other NFL team in the preseason, Buffalo uses base, vanilla schemes in pass coverage. Where Bryan Scott and Nick Barnett were during those plays is not necessarily where they'll be when the real play clock starts.
Still, they'll have to be more adept in marking wide receivers and they'll have to be better in pursuit. That much is certain.
Depth at safety
The Bills have a top-5 pair of safeties in Jairus Byrd and George Wilson.
They have very little behind them.
Jim Leonhard was brought in for a tryout, but instead signed in Denver, leaving two unproven players behind the starters.
Second-year man Da'Norris Searcy has been solid in what limited action he's seen in his brief NFL career, but he's still largely an unknown quantity. The Bills believe they snagged a versatile athlete when they selected Searcy in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, but there was a decided absence of playmaking ability at the strong safety position when Wilson went down with injury last year and Searcy had to step in. That's not to say the Tar Heel export can't add more than solid tackling and positioning in run defense, but he'll have to show it.
Somebody that has been showing it, and in spades, has been undrafted Stanford product Delano Howell.
The rookie was roving the field against both the Vikings and Redskins, making plays deep across the middle and in run defense. In speaking to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News, Bills coach Chan Gailey had plenty of positive things to say about his performance:
"I tell you what," Bills coach Chan Gailey said Friday night. "He's done some good things. I told him on the sideline before the game that he has really picked it up and done a good job. He's making a real run at this thing. He's been impressive the last three weeks."
If Searcy and Howell both make the final 53-man roster, Gailey should be able to feel much more at ease about the back end of his secondary.
Who's the No. 2 Wideout?
It's been talked about ad nauseum in this offseason, but with only 20 days left until the Bills kick off the 2012 season against the Jets, there's little more clarity opposite Stevie Johnson than there was in June.
Jones. Easley. Hagan. Graham. Roosevelt.
Five names, one logjam.
For what it's worth, rookie T.J. Graham is leading the Bills in receiving yards in the preseason with five catches for 106 yards, but what's important is he's showing more to his game than the straight-line speed he was drafted for.
Make no mistake, the speed is still there; look no further than Vince Young's 64-yard bomb to Graham against Minnesota for proof of that. But the former North Carolina State burner is getting off of bump-and-run coverage at the line of scrimmage and he's finding seams in the defense. Graham isn't in a one-man race for that roster spot, though.
Donald Jones does not want to be counted out of this race quite yet.
Against the Vikings, Jones caught what should have been little more than a 10-yard slant, broke across the middle and that's when the play really started.
The shifty Jones darted towards the left sideline, made Minnesota cornerback Chris Carr look positively foolish with a quick cut left to avoid the tackle attempt, and then beat three Vikings up the sideline before extending the ball across the plane and earning six for the Bills. Those are the kinds of plays that Buffalo wants to see out of Jones should he earn the No. 2 WR slot.
"It felt really good to get into the end zone," Jones said in an interview with Tim Graham. "What happened on the play was I think they blitzed, and the middle was wide open, and I knew Fitz was going to come to me. Once I caught the ball I just had the mindset to not let them tackle me."
Marcus Easley, Derek Hagan and Namaan Roosevelt have been quieter—Roosevelt did catch six passes against the Vikings, but on 12 targets and against second and third-team defenses—but they've all still got time to earn their spots.
Gailey and the Bills are hoping they do just that.