Tampa Bay vs. Buffalo: Bills Week 3 Game Preview
The Buffalo Bills are entering Week 3 of the preseason with a matchup Saturday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bills do have a bit of advantage over the Bucs, having had one more game under their belt with the Hall of Fame Game. The Bills haven't been able to capitalize on the extra game to knock off the offseason rust, though, as they've had an up-and-down preseason and enter the game with a 1-2 record.
The good news for the team, though, is training camp has come to a close at St. John Fisher College, and they finally head home to play their first game of the season in the newly renovated Ralph Wilson Stadium.
This preseason game is generally used as the dress rehearsal for the regular season for the starters, and if all goes well they will see minimal playing time next week. This is certainly the one game that will generate the most interest among fans, and a strong game would give the organization confidence heading into the regular season.
Buffalo's Week 2 Recap
The Buffalo Bills hoped that, with two practices against their Week 2 opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team could take a step in the right direction. This wasn't the case as the Bills excelled in the areas they have all preseason and didn't improve the areas they had to.
For the third straight week, the first-team defense looked dominant against the run, and as a whole the Bills defense only gave up 35 yards. The Steelers only ran the ball 18 times, though, and this could have been due to the fact they were moving it through the air with ease. It didn't take long at all for Pittsburgh to strike. Ben Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown for a 76-yard touchdown on the second play for their offense.
The frustrating part is the Steelers only needed two plays for them to accomplish something the Bills' first-team offense hasn't been able to do in three games: score a touchdown. This is one of the biggest storylines in this game Saturday against the Bucs, and all eyes will be on quarterback EJ Manuel.
The second-year quarterback played almost the entire first half against the Steelers and finished 17-of-27 for 148 yards and one interception. He led the Bills into Steelers territory four times but only came away with two field goals and two stops on fourth downs.
News and Notes
Will Sammy Watkins play Saturday?
A rib injury suffered against Pittsburgh has kept rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins from being a full participant in practice this week. He has suited up for two practices this week. However, he has been limited to just warm-up drills and stretching, according to ESPN's Mike Rodak.
Obviously the hope would be that Watkins will be able to suit up against the Bucs to give him more reps with Manuel, but the ultimate goal is to make sure he is ready to go Week 1 against Chicago. This could mean the team errs on the side of caution and holds Watkins out this week.
Tempers starting to flare in practice
Extra practice time in training camp has its pros and cons, and the Buffalo Bills are starting to find that out. The positive is it gives the coaching staff more time to work with the players, both on their technique and introducing the playbook.
The negative, though, is players start to get sick of each other and hitting the same guys day in and day out. That seemed to be the case Wednesday when one of the bigger training camp fights in recent memory took place in Buffalo. Matthew Fairburn of Syracuse.com got a video of the fight between DE Bryan Johnson and C Eric Wood, which eventually involved a number of teammates.
Coach Marrone seemed to reach his boiling point with the fighting in practice Thursday, the last one of training camp. Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 reported Marrone stopped practice and began "screaming at the top of his lungs at his team."
As punishment for the extracurricular activity, he made the team run laps, but not before defensive end Jerry Hughes made his feelings known. This only angered the head coach more, and the heated exchange did not end until Marcell Dareus stepped in, according to Buscaglia.
Football is a game of emotion, but it is also important to know how to control this emotion. These fights could be nothing more than players being tired of practice and training camp. However, this will not be an excuse come the regular season. Coach Marrone may be concerned about this, hence the speech and punishment laps.
The two key injuries for the Buffalo Bills this week are wide receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Leodis McKelvin, who are both listed as probable, according to ESPN.com.
Watkins suffered a rib injury in the preseason game against the Steelers and has yet to be a full participant in practice this week. He was able to suit up in full pads Tuesday and Wednesday. However, he only did the warm-up and stretching portion of practice. There was some indication on Thursday Watkins is getting healthier. He was able to participate in some route running but is still yet to be cleared to play, according to ESPN.com's Mike Rodak.
The other big name who could be missing Saturday is McKelvin, who was working his way back from an offseason hip surgery and was set to make his preseason debut this week. That was before he suffered a groin injury in practice Wednesday. The team does have depth at the position with the addition of Corey Graham in free agency. However, it would be good for McKelvin to get some live reps prior to the start of the season and a matchup against a good group of wide receivers in Chicago.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Bills offensive line vs. Bucs defensive line
The Bills offensive line has been patched together to this point in preseason, but the team may have finally settled on its starting five. Cordy Glenn returned to team drills on Monday at the left tackle position, which was expected. The coaching staff then decided to move rookie Seantrel Henderson into the starting right tackle position, allowing them to shift Erik Pears inside to right guard, as noted by ESPN's Mike Rodak.
If this group is the starting five Saturday against the Bucs, they are in store for a tough test as Tampa Bay has a talented group led by Gerald McCoy and free-agent signee Michael Johnson.
In terms of talent, these are the five best offensive linemen the Bills have, so this grouping makes sense. The concern is they haven't had a lot of practice time together and will have to get familiar quick with one another in a short period of time.
Tampa Bay WRs vs. Buffalo defensive backs
The Bucs have probably the biggest wide receiver duo in the league with Vincent Jackson (6'5", 230 pounds) and rookie Mike Evans (6'5" and 231 pounds). The Bills, on the other hand, do not have a cornerback taller than 6'0" and could be without Leodis McKelvin, who suffered a hamstring injury in practice this week.
This is a different type of wide receiver group they faced a week ago with the Steelers relying primarily on speed compared to the Bucs, who will try and outmuscle their opponent on the outside. This should be a good test for this group, which has been less than stellar so far this preseason.
Bills' X-factor of the Week: EJ Manuel
The attention has been primarily on EJ Manuel this entire preseason but this week in particular will be a good test for the second-year quarterback. The game against the Bucs last season was arguably his worst to date, when he threw four interceptions and was sacked seven times.
The Bucs do have a new head coach and new defensive system so this won't be entirely the same from a season ago. However, the three players who intercepted Manuel are still on this team (LaVonte David, Mason Foster and Johnthan Banks).
A strong game against the Bucs, one that includes a touchdown drive or two, should go a long way to giving Manuel some confidence entering the 2014 regular season.
The Week 3 preseason game is arguably the most important game of the preseason, mainly because this is generally used as the dress rehearsal for the regular season. The Bills have tried to treat this as much like a normal game week, and it would not be surprising to see the team open up the playbook a little bit.
If Sammy Watkins is out, I would expect the Bills to take pressure off EJ Manuel and focus on establishing the run with C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson and Bryce Brown. By establishing the running game, it could force the Bucs to play closer to the line and give Manuel better chances of completing longer passes down the field.
On the defensive side of the ball, I expect them to continue their trend of shutting down opposing running backs, but the concern will be how the secondary will match up with the Bucs' big wide receivers. The best way the Bills can take away the potential mismatch is if the defensive line is able to continue to get pressure on the opposing quarterback and give him less time to make a throw.
Prediction: Bills 23, Bucs 17