5 Things to Watch as the Buffalo Bills Kick off Their 2013 Preseason Schedule
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
There should be an extra bit of excitement surrounding the Buffalo Bills as they kick off preseason action against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, even if it is a meaningless game. For better or worse (it can't get worse, right?), all of the offseason turnover at One Bills Drive means that the product on the field will be significantly different.
With a new GM, a new head coach, a new quarterback and many other intriguing changes to the roster, there's a lot to look forward to.
We've gotten a glimpse at what changes lie ahead from training camp in Pittsford, NY. The team is at St. John Fisher College preparing for another season of Bills football, and the buzz around the team is substantial.
Let's take a look at some of the most compelling story lines as we approach Sunday's opener.
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When you draft a player in the first round, the spotlight will inevitably shine brighter on him. When it's a quarterback, the intensity kicks up a notch. On Sunday, EJ Manuel will get his first taste of NFL game play.
At the outset of training camp, Kevin Kolb was getting the majority of first-team repetitions. As time has gone on, Manuel has seemingly outshined the veteran journeyman. Making things even easier on Doug Marrone was the fluke injury that has Kolb day-to-day.
Still, since Kolb was injured, Manuel hasn't exactly run away with the race. On Monday night, the Bills held an 11-on-11 scrimmage, and WGR 550 reports that Manuel had an up-and-down performance:
It wasn't the most awe-inspiring of starts for first-round quarterback EJ Manuel. Fresh off of a three-interception day on Sunday, the rookie started the live scrimmage with another pair of interceptions...From that point, it was slow and steady but the rookie eventually came around. Manuel's initial first down came on his ninth drive, which was a touchdown to T.J. Graham. He went on to throw another touchdown, and rush for another.
According to Doug Marrone, though, there has been one important takeaway from all of Manuel's mistakes. As he said to Pro Football Talk, "What I like about E.J. is he doesn’t make the same mistake twice."
It may take Manuel some time to develop, but it's clear that the rookie is a smart and dedicated worker in addition to his immense physical talent. On Sunday, we'll see how he faces against a defense that played in the 2012 playoffs.
Young Wide Receivers
Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods have a big opportunity
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Perhaps the worst news out of Bills camp is the hamstring injury that Stevie Johnson is dealing with. The veteran out of Kentucky is the only proven producer on the depth chart, but the team doesn't appear to be too worried. Certainly part of the reason for that is the success of the young receiving core.
With Johnson out, the window has been opened for more opportunities for the likes of Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, TJ Graham and Da'Rick Rogers. All indications show that these receivers are performing well at camp.
Though Robert Woods has long been touted as NFL-ready, the guy who has gone under the radar is Goodwin. At Texas, he was horribly misused despite his elite speed and game-breaking talent. He may not be a top route-runner yet, but Goodwin and Manuel appear to have great chemistry already.
Even better, Goodwin was brilliant in the scrimmage. Paul Hamilton of WGR 550 reported that he burned CB TJ Heath on two plays in a row. Later in the scrimmage he made an even better play:
In the two minute drill, Manuel was on the money and engineered a 75 yard drive for a TD. It was Goodwin who saved the day on fourth and long. He went up the ladder between two defenders and came down with the ball.
The team wants Johnson back as soon as possible, but Sunday should give the young guys a great chance to show their mettle.
The Offensive Line
Doug Marrone has some concerns about the O-Line
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In 2012, the Bills' offensive line allowed 30 sacks, a number that ranked 10th fewest in the league. In the offseason, the Bills lost stud left guard Andy Levitre to the Tennessee Titans. Though four other starters return from last year's line, there appears to be some early concerns regarding Levitre's replacement and continuity for the whole unit.
At left guard, Doug Legursky and Colin Brown are battling it out for the job. Neither has been all that impressive, though, as Doug Marrone told Mike Rodak of ESPN:
It's inconsistent play out of that position. We need to become more consistent. I think that we have to look to maybe throw someone else in the mix. I don't know if I see the separation that I liked to see right now.
Another concern is the play of second-year left tackle Cordy Glenn. Glenn was having a great rookie year until he was injured, and then became inconsistent. The Bills are seeing the same sorts of issues at training camp, as WGR 550 reports:
To start training camp in 2013, Glenn has flashed in good ways and also stood out for some negative plays as well...[He] has shown real trouble with two types of moves...[He] is young and still can learn the technique to avoid this from being a problem for the long-term, but it is a bit of a problem right now.
If the Bills are going to have success on offense, they'll need to protect the man under center and create lanes for CJ Spiller. If they can't, we could be in for a very long season. On Sunday, the line gets its first real test against the Colts.
New Look Defense
Stephon Gilmore looks to make a big jump in Year Two
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Last year, Buffalo's defense wasn't much short of an abomination. The team allowed 27.2 PPG, which was good enough for 7th-worst in the NFL. Much blame has been attributed to former defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, so fans are justifiably excited to see Mike Pettine's new-look defense.
Instead of running a base 4-3 defense like last year, Pettine aims to keep offenses off balance by presenting a number of different looks and packages. Howard Simon of WGR 550 indicated that they've been doing just that thus far in Pittsford:
It has been fun watching the different looks and blitzes coming from Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine's group. One of their nickel packages included just one down lineman and five linebackers. They are definitely blitzing more with linebackers and safeties coming from different directions. A four man rush was the norm last season but it seems to be a rarity in camp thus far.
For a team that did pretty well against the pass last year, but has been miserable against the run for what seems like forever, it was time for a change. This year's version of the defense is sure to be much more aggressive than the last.
It's clear that the defense has taken it to the offense for the most part at St. John Fisher College, but it'll be interesting to see how they fare against the likes of Andrew Luck in Indianapolis.
The Kicking Battle
Rian Lindell and Dustin Hopkins are in a tough battle
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The Bills have had continuity at kicker for the last nine years with Rian Lindell. When they drafted Dustin Hopkins in the 6th Round of the 2013 NFL Draft, it appeared that they might be heading in a different direction. However, things haven't exactly gone according to plan at camp thus far.
It appears that any semblance of a tie in the competition would go to the rookie, who is paid less and has a stronger leg than the veteran. But it doesn't appear to be that close right now. Hopkins has really struggled of late, especially on Sunday as WGR 550 reports:
Well, it started off in a very average way. Hopkins hit 4-of-7, but he did nail a 52-yard attempt. In the second set of kicking activities, Hopkins couldn't get it together. He missed 3-of-4 attempts, including one from 32 yards out. If you're keeping track at home, the rookie went just 5-of-11 for the day, bringing his camp totals to 31-of-46. It's been written many times that Hopkins would have to virtually lose all confidence in himself to lose this job with all the factors working against Lindell. It was a windy day on Sunday, but Hopkins can ill-afford to have any more days like that.
Lindell has been the better, more consistent kicker in camp, which means it should be his job to lose at this point. Against the Colts, it will be even more important for Hopkins to capitalize on his chances in a game situation. If not, we'll be seeing year 10 of the Lindell era in Buffalo.