Buffalo Bills: Questions That Still Must Be Answered This Preseason
The Buffalo Bills are shaking things up in training camp this week by having joint practices with the Pittsburgh Steelers ahead of their preseason game Saturday. The trip to Latrobe, Pa., will be a nice change of scenery for the team, and the practices with the Steelers will provide a good test for this young Bills team.
With training camp in full swing, we're starting to figure out where the Bills need work and where they should have success this season. The defense should be strong again, but the offense still has some work to do.
Let's take a look at some questions the team still needs to answer before the regular season begins.
How Will the Offensive Line Shake Out?
Much of Bills training camp so far has been focused on finding the right combination along the offensive line.
Left tackle Cordy Glenn was only recently added to the active roster, but the team is still bringing him along slowly. Rookie Seantrel Henderson has been the team's first-team left tackle in Glenn's place.
The only position that hasn't seen much turnover is center, where Eric Wood is firmly entrenched. Every other position has multiple players competing. Cyril Richardson, Kraig Urbik, Chris Williams and Chris Hairston have all seen time at guard while Erik Pears and Cyrus Kouandjio have been competing at right tackle.
If the first practice with the Steelers is any indication, the Bills offensive line still needs some work. Kouandjio continued to struggle to the point where an offensive coach told him, via Tim Graham of The Buffalo News, that he "might as well be Venus de Milo."
Richardson has been seeing more time with the first team, and he continued to Wednesday with Williams sitting out.
A good offensive line is crucial to any team's success. Building a cohesive unit up front should be one of the team's top priorities as training camp gives way to the regular season.
Will Defensive End Depth Be Addressed?
Here's something you already know: The Bills have an excellent defensive line.
Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams all went to the Pro Bowl last year, and Jerry Hughes chipped in 10 sacks. They've all continued to impress so far this preseason, with Hughes standing out among the group.
The Bills have decent depth at defensive tackle with Alan Branch, Landon Cohen and Corbin Bryant. But an injury to Hughes or Williams would be catastrophic for the Bills defense. Losing either player would all but neutralize the pass rush from the edge.
Manny Lawson is playing defensive end for the Bills and can be a solid rotational player, but the team has few other reliable options after Lawson. Jarius Wynn is Mario Williams' primary backup. Wynn is on his fifth NFL team and his fourth in four years. In his six-year career, Wynn has played in 58 games and accrued 8.5 total sacks.
Besides Wynn, the Bills have Jacquies Smith and Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, who have yet to play a meaningful snap in their careers.
With that said, one has to wonder if there are any plans to strengthen the depth at the defensive end position. If not, that will put a lot of pressure on Williams and Hughes to carry the load. It will also cause them to be on the field more, giving more opportunity for injury.
You can never assume an injury, but the Bills could stand to have some insurance in case one of their studs does go down.
What Will Robert Woods' Role Be?
This isn't something we thought would be a question heading into the season. But after the first two preseason games, here we are.
With Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins set to work the sidelines, Robert Woods and his fluid route-running seemed to be a perfect fit to occupy the slot for the Bills. However, in the team's first preseason game, the Hall of Fame Game against the New York Giants Woods ran with the second-team offense, while Chris Hogan started in the slot.
Woods got some first-team reps against the Carolina Panthers, and he led the team in catches in both games. According to Matthew Fairburn of Syracuse.com, Bills president Russ Brandon told Woods, "It's good to see you dominate" after the win against the Panthers.
Fairburn also said Doug Marrone wants Woods to play with more of a chip on his shoulder (though probably not too much lest he get ejected again for punching an opponent). Since getting snubbed against the Giants, Woods "has dominated every time he's been on the field in a practice or game," per Fairburn.
Williams and Watkins will likely receive a lot of attention on the outside, which should give Woods plenty of opportunity to continue to dominate. We will just have to see what kind of playing time Woods gets as the preseason continues.
How Will the Team Divide Carries?
As we've previously discussed, the Bills have four talented running backs who all can have an impact. But the question now is how will the team distribute the ball among the four players?
After returning to full health, C.J. Spiller will most likely get the bulk of the workload. Fred Jackson will continue to be a steadying presence, but he's no spring chicken (he's currently the oldest running back in the NFL).
One of two newcomers to the team's running back position, Bryce Brown led the team in rushing in each of the first two preseason games, putting up 40 yards on seven carries against the Giants and 64 yards on 11 totes against the Panthers. Brown showed impressive burst and power on all of his runs, and Marrone told Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com that Bryce "has the potential to start in the NFL."
And then we get to Anthony Dixon, who probably won't get more than 10 carries in any game this season for the Bills. Despite that, he can still have a significant impact. Dixon could become the Bills' short-yardage specialist, as he was able to punch in a one-yard touchdown run against Carolina.
Per Matthew Fairburn of Syracuse.com, Dixon's goal-line running has been strong, which prompted him to shout "you can't stop this!" at the defense during a drill down at the end zone. Fairburn also noted that Dixon was working with the first-team goal-line unit, which means he might see more carries when the team gets close to scoring.
With all of the talent the Bills have at running back, it will be hard to effectively get the ball to everyone. All four backs are deserving of playing time, though, which will make it interesting to see how the carries are split for the rest of the preseason.
How Much Will EJ Manuel Improve?
This is the ultimate question that will determine the Bills' success this season.
The Bills have talent up and down the roster, but they will only go as far as EJ Manuel takes them. So far throughout training camp, Manuel has had good days and bad days.
In his first preseason game, Manuel was 2-of-7 for 19 yards. He had several passes deflected at or near the line of scrimmage because he was locked on to one receiver.
In the second game, Manuel fared much better. The second-year quarterback was 9-of-13 for 96 yards. He still couldn't lead the team into the end zone, but it was an improvement over his last performance.
But in the Bills' first combined practice with the Steelers on Wednesday, Manuel struggled again. Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth said what he saw of Manuel "was not pretty."
For the Bills to get over the playoff hump, EJ Manuel will need to improve his game. His NFL career is only 10 games old, but a lot is riding on his play in 2014. If he can work through his progressions and not force the ball, he can become the quarterback the Bills want him to be.
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