Buffalo Bills: What to Watch for in Preseason Game Action Against Carolina
The Buffalo Bills got back on the field Sunday night in the Hall of Fame Game as they started to knock off the rust built up from the offseason. Many hoped that Buffalo would leave Canton, Ohio, with the win, but it ended up coming up short, losing 17-13 to the Giants.
It wasn't a great performance, and there are certainly things the coaching staff will try to correct ahead of the Bills' next game against the Carolina Panthers. These are four key things fans should look for when they watch the game Friday night.
The hope was that EJ Manuel was going to be ready to take that next step in his second season, and while his first game wasn't all bad, it wasn't very strong, either. He finished the game with only two completions on seven attempts for 19 yards. As a whole, the offense looked very stagnant during those two series, only mustering two first downs and three points.
The stat line doesn't tell the whole story, though, as Manuel did do some positive things in the game against the Giants.
One of the positives was going deep to Watkins during the first series; while the pass was overthrown, these types of plays should stretch defenses. They will have to respect the deep threat if this becomes a staple of the offense. It should also help open the running game as well as the underneath crossing routes.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), of Manuel's 306 pass attempts in 2013, only 41 of them were greater than 20 yards downfield. The Bills hope to improve on this number in 2014, hence the selection of Sammy Watkins in this year's draft. The team should continue to try to work on taking shots downfield with Manuel and Watkins to help them get familiar and build some chemistry.
One of the biggest surprises from the game on Sunday night was that Chris Hogan, and not Robert Woods, got the nod as the slot receiver with the first team. ESPN.com's Mike Rodak wasn't necessarily surprised by Woods not starting, but wrote in his his article, "What was unusual, though, was Woods playing into the third quarter, while teammates Watkins and Williams were out of the game by late in the first quarter."
It is certainly easy to jump to a number of conclusions by this, but it is important to remember that preseason is a time for coaches to try different things and see what works. I still fully expect Robert Woods to be the starting slot receiver and a big part of this passing attack. However, this opinion could start to shift a bit if the coaching staff decides to use the same group at wide receiver against the Panthers.
While the Bills have some talented offensive linemen, one thing is clear—there are a number of question marks surrounding this group as a whole. The only two positions that seem to be set at this point in preseason are Chris Williams at left guard and Eric Wood at center.
The right tackle position is shaping up to be more of a battle than many thought with veteran Erik Pears playing well and rookie Cyrus Kouandjio struggling. The rookie out of Alabama did not help his case against the Giants, either, giving up two sacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The right guard position is another spot that seems to be heading toward a long training-camp battle between Kraig Urbik and Cyril Richardson. Chris Brown of Buffalobills.com noted that these two were the only two taking snaps at the right guard position with the first team in Tuesday's practice.
The one position, left tackle, that could have been a real nightmare with Cordy Glenn missing time has actually been a bright spot due to Seantrel Henderson's performance so far. He played pretty well in the Hall of Fame Game, matching up against the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul.
There are a lot of moving parts right now along this offensive line—it's certainly something worth watching to see how its members perform against a quality defensive line like the Panthers'.
The run defense was a point of emphasis this offseason with the additions of Brandon Spikes and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who has had success in his career against the run. The Bills did give up 121 yards rushing against the Giants, but the key stat to remember is minus-two. This number is how many rushing yards the Giants gained against the Bills' first-team defense in their first two series.
It is a very small sample size, but it was a good start for this unit and hopefully one they will be able to build on Friday night. Last season the Panthers finished 11th in rushing yards; however, Cam Newton accounted for over a quarter of those yards on the ground. This will certainly be a test for the defensive line in particular to contain the mobile quarterback and force him to become one-dimensional and throw the ball.
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