Heading into Week 2 of the 2013 NFL preseason, it seems the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills have taken drastically different strategies to make their way to the games that actually count.
On one side, Leslie Frazier has shown little interest in putting his most important players on the field. Christian Ponder saw exactly two snaps during Minnesota's 27-13 loss to the Houston Texans, while running back Adrian Peterson might as well have been wearing a Hawaiian shirt and drinking mimosas.
It seems Frazier is content on watching his second-team battle it out, duking for positions within the Vikings' hierarchy. Matt Cassel in particular saw extensive play under center, as he tries to resurrect his career after a hellish 2012 season in Kansas City.
On the other side, new Bills coach Doug Marrone has come over from Syracuse and made it clear he wants to get a good, long look at his talent. Rookie E.J. Manuel played the entire first half and was joined by a majority of the players who will comprise the first team for a good portion. Stevie Johnson was the only top-tier Buffalo weapon who did not see at least a series or two of playing time, as Marrone's squad pulverized the Colts, 44-20.
Perhaps the dichotomy is rooted in where these two teams are at in the eyes of most fans. The Bills have not made the playoffs since before the turn of the century and haven't had a winning season since 2004. With Marrone trying to prove himself as a college-turned-pro coach, you can understand his strategy.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is coming off a surprising 10-6 season and playoff appearance. Frazier has become renowned as one of the most underrated coaches in the league, a guy who won't ever be a Belichickian mastermind but makes the smart decision a majority of the time.
With that out of the way, let's check in on a preview for Friday night's action, highlighting the top storylines.
When: Friday, Aug. 16 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo
Watch: KARE 11 (Minnesota), Blacked Out in Local Markets
Live Stream: NFL Preseason Live (paid service)
Spread: Bills -3.5 (via Vegas Insider)
Over/Under: 43.5 (via Vegas Insider)
Storylines to Watch
Vikings Rookie Roundup
When you make three first-round picks, it tends to overshadow just about anything else that goes along with your exhibition season. Sure, the Vikings have a 2,000-yard rusher and reigning MVP. They already know what they're getting from him. And sure, Minnesota has a ton of questions about quarterback Christian Ponder. Well, those answers won't be coming in the preseason.
Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and wideout Cordarrelle Patterson are all expected to play major roles this season. Floyd and Patterson kicked off their careers last week, with Rhodes missing the contest with an injury.
Let's just say the results were mixed-to-positive.
Patterson was by far the most outwardly impressive. The 6'2" speedster was considered an incredible athlete but equally as raw coming out of Tennessee. Nevertheless, his first professional appearance leaned far toward the former than the latter. He caught four passes for 54 yards and opened the game with a beautiful 50-yard kick return. Patterson will likely handle most of the return duties this season, as Minnesota looks to replace the departed Percy Harvin on kicks.
Receiver is one of the most difficult positions in football to transfer over from the college to pro level. Patterson's probably going to start the season behind Jerome Simpson on the depth chart, which will be just fine if he can emerge as a stalwart return man.
Floyd's debut could best be described as scary. The former Florida standout was solid in his limited playing time, recording a tackle for a loss and batting a ball down at the line of scrimmage, but the Metrodome crowd hushed quickly when Floyd took a low block from Texans tackle Andrew Gardner and crumpled to the ground in pain.
USA Today's Tom Pelissero reports there is no structural damage, and he should be fine long-term. That sound you heard was a collective sigh of relief. Floyd is currently listed third on the team's defensive tackle depth chart behind Kevin Williams and Christian Ballard. Even if he doesn't start right away, look for him to get plenty of work on obvious pass downs.
Outside of the first-round selections, linebacker Michael Mauti looked strong in his professional debut as he attempts to come back from a third ACL tear. The former Penn State standout recorded two tackles and feels like a pretty good bet to make the roster. He was named a first-team All-American last season and likely would have been a much higher pick without the injury problems. Barring another setback, he could be a steal in Minneapolis.
The Continued Development of E.J. Manuel
Over the past couple seasons, we've become conditioned to young quarterbacks stepping in right away and becoming stars. The likes of Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton have started immediately for their respective teams, becoming franchise faces and reviving stagnant franchises.
It's frankly spoiled the expectations most fans have for rookie signal-callers. We've long since been removed from the days when a player would follow the Steve Young model, sitting behind a well-respected vet for years before getting his chance.
But with players like Griffin setting the world ablaze as rookies, it becomes hard to contextualize a standard rookie quarterback season. By the classic mold, Ryan Tannehill was quite good last season despite a poor supporting cast. Juxtaposed against his contemporaries? Not so much.
That's a fate that Bills rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel will likely see this season. Buffalo sent shock waves throughout the Radio City Music Hall in April by taking the former Florida State standout in the first round. Many had Manuel pegged somewhere in the second day, and perhaps even lasting until Saturday if the draft chips fell in a certain way. (As they did for Matt Barkley and Ryan Nassib, for instance.)
One game into his face-of-the-franchise status, Manuel has to be feeling quite good. He played the entire first half against the Indianapolis Colts last week, throwing for 107 yards on 16-of-21 passing and tossing a touchdown to Dorin Dickerson late in the first half. While not a scrambler in the RGIII sense, Manuel did bust out a 24-yard run and used his feet well on a couple different occasions.
Speaking after the game, the 23-year-old Virginia Beach native told the Bills' official website he felt he got better as the game progressed.
"Each play, I felt more relaxed, so I can’t necessarily say it was that one run or anything," Manuel said. "I feel like each play I got better."
Looking back at film, Manuel was correct in his assessment. His drops were cleaner as the game went along, and he seemed more confident with where he wanted to go with the ball. It's no surprise that Manuel's best drive of the game was his last, as he ran a very good two-minute drill to put Buffalo ahead 20-13 at halftime.
That said, there were definitely some quirks and rough edges that need smoothing. He and C.J. Spiller need to work on having smoother exchanges, as one aborted play led to a fumble and an Indianapolis field goal. The fumble was mostly Spiller's fault, but the box score credited it to Manuel.
Passing-wise, Manuel was very much a check-down machine almost the entire way to that two-minute drill. He completed exactly one pass longer than 10 yards before that final drive, and his long of the day was the 17-yard strike to Dickerson. There's such a thing as "taking what the defense gives you" and checking down to a short receiver before any pressure hits your face. Manuel did too much of the latter during his first start.
What's more, a good deal of his throws were off-target. His ball-placement was off enough that it stood out, with many receivers having to adjust their routes to make grabs on short passes. Credit the Buffalo receivers for doing so and propping up their quarterback's numbers. But Manuel needs to show some improvement in those two areas as he barrels toward a likely Week 1 start.
Giving a preseason prediction with any sort of conviction is the definition of silly. An overwhelming portion of the action will be played by guys we have an almost nonexistent sample on, ones who are either trying to scrape by and make the team or just lock on to a practice squad somewhere.
You'd have an easier time getting rich off scratcher tickets than accurately prognosticating the preseason standings. Every team comes away with one goal: to keep starters healthy. While we've seen that's a near-impossible task, it matters far more than what the bright lights on the scoreboard say.
Buffalo has made a greater commitment to playing its first-string guys. Manuel played the entire first half a week ago, and it's unlikely he'll play less time against Minnesota. Meanwhile, Leslie Frazier might as well have his top stars thrown in cryogenic chambers. We might get a couple more drives from Ponder, but I'd bet Minnesota turns to desert in the winter before we see Adrian Peterson on the field Friday.
Since first-stringers tend to be better than the players behind them, let's go with a Bills cover at home.
Score: Bills 27, Vikings 17
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